DakoCytomation are a Danish, research-based supplier of biogens to the world market. Biogens are analytical liquids used in laboratories to identify illnesses and medical conditions. They are employed by laboratory assistants but many of them present a health hazard.
DAKO have a major daughter company in the US and are an international leader in their field.
In the late 90’s DakoCytomation recognised that were facing heavy competition from the big multinationals who could supply total not only the biogens, but also the analytical machines to process the procedures in which they are used in the health sector. Investment in research is paid back by producing analytic packages custom-designed for their own analytical machines.
DakoCytomation was only producing biogens and therefore loosing money and market to companies capable of marketing complete and closed automatic systems.
In 1998, we were commissioned to help DakoCytomation design a medical analysis robot that would utilise their biogens. The brief was very open as the only parameter they had already defined was the total envelope and footprint. A product engineering contract was already defined with an engineering house specialised in robotics in the Boston area (USA), and the project was being run by a local team set up by the US subsidiary of DakoCytomation in L.A..
The data available at the beginning of the project was very sketchy but we managed to produce a concept and a design that brought us 2 years into the project before it broke down through bad management. Until this happened however, we was both concept developer and unofficial project co-ordinator. The US partner was however, extremely amateur and could not live up to their contractual responsibilities. We recognised that the project was doomed early on in the process, but the decision-makers in top management at DakoCytomation refused to deal with the situation. Unfortunately the consequences were that they lost market share and several million US$ in the process.
The specifications for the machine were to process 40 different medical tests on standard slides in one hour for which 60 bottles of biogens needed to be stored and accessible within the shell. The slides had to go through a very complicated liquid handing circuit involving vacuum and pressure pumping as well as mechanical tipping at two handing stations. To this end we designed a patented slide holder and a biogen bottle to be handled by a high-speed robot.
The processing of this machine was very complicated and needed micro-precision. Unfortunately, these were two factors that the American engineering company could not handle. Nor were the members of the engineering team able to collaborate seamlessly with each other or focused on important aspects such as design-for-manufacturing, assembly or service. We introduced a modular logic to the construction of the machine and built an extremely strong and precise aluminium frame in which the modules could be built and retain their precision. This frame also functioned as the skeleton to which the simple matt-anodised aluminium sheet metal chassis was attached.
Meanwhile, the software engineers who were designing the programs that would control the processes and provide the user interface also ran into architectural and interface problems. We brought in our own software design partner, but met the same kind of management problems as in the hardware-development project. Among other things it was the internal politics of collaborating across cultures and great distances that destroyed the project but differences in company culture between the Danish expectations and the American capabilities were also enormous.
After 10 fully functional prototypes had been built and shown at international shows we were asked to find an alternative engineering house. We brought in a Danish innovative engineering company, Bang & Olufsen Medicon as a potential new partner. We made substantial progress redefining the project and negotiating a new development contract before the US subsidiary won the political in-fight and an executive decision moved the whole project to L.A.. All in all however, we gained two years experience managing the design and engineering aspect of a complex international project.