Many of us have the natural impulse to acquire ‘new stuff’. Whether it be a state-of-the-art computer / mobile phone / programmable logic controller or indeed, circuit breaker. However, older technologies are often better.
No where better to illustrate this, than a big problem in bioengineering currently playing out in the USA for tens of thousands of people (some estimates are up to half a million in the USA alone) who received metal-on-metal artificial hips which have serious flaws. The artificial hips are known as metal-on-metal hips and were regarded as superior to the existing simple design invented by the British surgeon, Dr John Charnley, in the 1960’s. The original design was based on a metal ball (cobalt and chromium) which replaced the top of the thigh bone, whilst a plastic cup served as the artificial hip socket. These older technologies were considered effective with implants still working a decade later in 95% of patients. However, despite the new metal-on-metal hips being promoted as innovative and a breakthrough, inevitably there was no convincing evidence to back this up to demonstrate they were as good as or better than the older options.
Despite early warnings from bioengineering experts about the new metal-on-metal designs especially about inadequate testing; there have been a surge of manufacturers placing these on the market. Unfortunately many patients have developed pain from these new designs (as we all know, surgery is bad enough, without further problems with defective implants). And damage from metal debris released into the body is proving far harder to deal with than the older plastic inserts. With horrendous tissue and muscle damage resulting.
Why has this happened ? Well, manufacturers are always looking for a unique spin for their product. And the slick advertising converted many doubters; with the intensive marketing convincing the general public that they wanted the latest and greatest. Coupled with some in the medical fraternity who were perhaps more financially motivated; the sales of metal-on-metal hips took off.
Obviously, if the existing product is ineffective or riddled with problems, then a new innovative solution which fixes these issues can be preferable. However, the old maxim of: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ should surely apply to existing products which work.
What to look for before confirming new innovative products:
So what lessons are there here for us?
* Don't change to new technologies simply because they are new. Examine older ones carefully and see whether you can build in new technology rather than replace it all with a completely new paradigm
* Don’t replace products unless the new one clearly offers a better prospect under all conditions – especially adverse ones.
* Testing of new products needs to be done under seriously adverse conditions. Simulations are not adequate.
* Regulations need to be comprehensive enough to cover safety issues so harmful products cannot be simply released onto the market
* When problems first surface, they need to be dealt with openly and honestly to minimise the damage.
* And, (and I know you have all been through this in the past); don’t trust marketing and advertising. Look for solid evidence to back up any claims.
Perhaps R.Buckminster Fuller is right: Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.
Today for my sins, I am en route to Africa today (from a very wet Oz) to attend our offices there as well as our wonderful clients keen to talk about engineering training; but the newsletters will still be bolting into your inboxes.
Thanks to the New York Times for an interesting article.
Yours in engineering learning