Medical Device Engineering: An Overview

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Two medical device engineers test a prosthetic arm in a lab.

What does the lowly walking cane have in common with sophisticated MRI machinery? They’re both medical devices, whose purpose is to resolve health care issues and improve an individual’s quality of life and well-being. The engineering that goes into developing medical devices is both innovative and practical, taking into account design, functionality, manufacturability, and safety.

Engineering students who are interested in moving into the medical arena should consider an advanced education  — particularly master’s degree programs in engineering that can provide a foundation in the design and manufacture of medical devices.

What Is Medical Device Engineering?

Medical device engineering focuses on the design and manufacture of devices used in medical care. These devices include mobility aids (walkers, wheelchairs), individual diagnostic devices (blood pressure cuffs, blood glucose monitors), large-scale diagnostic machinery (MRI, PET, and X-ray scanners), and innovative drug delivery systems (nicotine patches, microdevices).

Medical device engineers, also known as bioengineers or biomedical engineers, work in laboratories and health care facilities, and for private corporations and government agencies. About 16% of all bioengineers work in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Another 16% work in research and development departments of engineering and life sciences organizations.

Besides their primary job description of medical product design and development, medical device engineers are responsible for:

  • Software: Engineers may be tasked with developing the software to operate medical devices and other innovations.
  • Maintenance: Installation and repair of devices are also part of the role’s responsibilities.
  • Training: Medical device engineers train medical staff on the use of their products, which may be highly complex and dangerous if deployed improperly.
  • Research: Before beginning the design process, engineers must investigate how the proposed product will interact with the human body.
  • Collaboration: Teamwork and collaboration are a significant part of an engineer’s day-to-day responsibilities. They work with other scientists, medical experts, and clinicians to design products according to specifications.
  • Testing: Before deployment, products undergo rigorous testing to confirm safety and efficacy. Medical device engineers collect and analyze data and apply their findings to redesign and improve products.
  • Communications: Engineers publish their work in white papers and journals, present their findings to stakeholders, and develop user manuals and other documentation.

The Skills of a Medical Device Engineer

Successful medical device engineers combine strong technical, analytical, and creative thinking skills with their knowledge of medicine and health care. They stay abreast of new findings in lab-created and organic materials, as well as scientific breakthroughs such as nanotechnology.

Medical device engineering professionals also must have excellent interpersonal and communications skills, as they work in a highly collaborative and multidisciplinary environment.

Top Hard Skills

Hard skills for any career comprise the specific technical knowledge required for the job. For medical device engineers, that encompasses the following requirements.

Materials Knowledge

Medical device engineers have training in the properties of materials, both organic and non-organic, whether those are steel, ceramic, glass, mesh, porous, nanotech, or have other features. These properties affect product design.

Advanced Math and Science

Math, materials science, mechanical engineering, biology, chemistry, and physics combine to make up the engineer’s tool kit. Engineers must be experienced in using advanced math, such as calculus, statistics, and data modeling. They must also understand engineering and mechanics and how they interact with the human body, from the cellular level up to the musculoskeletal structure.

Analytical Mindset

Engineering requires a data-driven mindset and scientific perspective. Engineers must be able to assess the physical features of a product, the materials used, and its design, as well as patient needs. They must thoroughly understand the product’s intended use and be willing to look at data objectively in analyzing a product’s effectiveness.

Critical Thinking

From the beginning of the design process to the end of the product life cycle, engineers must apply critical thinking skills. They have to be able to analyze the scope of a design, its purpose, price, and manufacturability, among other factors. They must base their decisions on data gathered in the scope of modeling and user testing. They must also use critical thinking to identify challenges and solutions.

Top Soft Skills

The best engineers don’t work in a vacuum. They regularly collaborate with other professionals, including researchers and clinicians. Developing certain soft skills is key to success in the medical device engineering field. These skills contribute to a professional work environment and a productive team, and they are often combined under the heading of interpersonal skills.

Written Communication

Engineers keep logs of their daily activities. They make presentations to decision makers, outside stakeholders, and the non-technical community (health care workers, public officials, etc.). They also write for publication, including marketing white papers, scientific journals, and product documentation.

Oral Communication

Possessing excellent oral communication skills may be one of the most important competencies for engineers. They must be able to communicate and listen clearly and thoughtfully. Engineers not only communicate with their team, they also report to managers, executives, clients, and other stakeholders.

Creativity

Engineering is a creative field, and engineers are creative and innovative problem-solvers. They deal with complex systems, both mechanical and biological. Being inquisitive is key to creating innovative work as well as applying effective troubleshooting and problem-solving. Creativity is also key to being excited about and engaged with a project.

Teamwork

Medical device engineering is a collaborative process. Engineers must be able to work well with others, including engaging in brainstorming, problem-solving, project management, workflow coordination, and other tasks. Being a good team player is often essential to a successful career in the industry, as many employers prize collaboration.

Medical Device Engineer Salary

The BLS classifies the medical device engineering profession under the occupation bioengineers and biomedical engineers. In 2021, the median annual wage for engineers in the medical equipment and supplies manufacturing industry was $97,090, according to BLS data.

The BLS projects that demand for all bioengineering occupations will grow 6% between 2020 and 2030. Employment growth in this field will be partly driven by the country’s aging population. As people live longer and remain active, demand for the types of products medical device engineers create is expected to increase.

Build a Better Future in an Important Field

Medical device engineering offers a unique opportunity for creative engineers to make a difference in health care. If you’re excited about the idea of applying your engineering mindset to designing products that are lifesaving and life-changing, explore the online Master of Science in Engineering program at the University of California, Riverside. With concentrations including bioengineering and mechanical engineering, you can build a foundation in an exciting field.

Discover how the program can inspire you and prepare you for a rewarding career today.

 

Recommended Readings

5 Engineering Career Paths of the Future

Major Nanomaterials Use Cases in Medicine

The Most Promising Industries for Tomorrow’s Mechanical Engineers

 

Sources:

123Test, Profession Medical Device Engineer

American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, “Why Biomedical Engineering?”

Biomedical Engineering Society, Medical Devices

Drug Delivery Business News, “8 Drug Delivery Innovations You Need to Know”

Indeed, “What Is a Medical Engineer? Definition and How to Become One”

Medical Design Briefs, “2021: Technology Trends and the Future of Medical Devices”

Proclinical, Manufacturing Engineer Jobs in Medical Devices

Thomas Publishing Company, “5 Vital Soft Skills for a Successful Career in Engineering”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bioengineers and Biomedical Engineers