Missouri-based Young Innovations manufactures COVID-19 test swabs. They're sterilized and come wrapped in medical-grade pouches. They have a 6" polypropylene handle with a molded-in breaking point; after swabbing, the user snaps the bulk of the handle off and drops the swab end into a transport tube.
You might not consider the design of the swab notable. But what is notable is that Young Innovations is a company that manufactures dental equipment. Like many companies not known for producing diagnostic kits, following last year's FDA emergency-use authorization they expanded into testing swabs because the demand is there and because they have the manufacturing know-how.
Prior to the pandemic Young was already producing swabs in the hundreds of millions, except that these were for applying dental adhesives rather than soaking up snot; turns out they're not that different, and they just had to figure out the molded-in snap-off feature.
These humble swabs from Young are actually part of a much larger trend:
COVID has driven "a change in diagnostics technology," John Frymark, vice president of product development and strategy at Young Innovations, told Plastics News. Many companies debuted new technologies for at-home test kits under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization last year.
"It's going to go beyond COVID testing," as the telehealth industry continues to grow, he said. "Everything from cancer detection to STD testing and anything that would go through the historical lab chain. We've gotten a lot of inquiries [for rapid test kits] from various companies about [new] applications," he added.
"It's going to be a revolution for the diagnostics market," Frymark said. "To go from a test that would take 24 to 48 hours and cost $150 to get processed, to now, something you can do in 15 minutes for $20 or $30."
It might sound absurd to say that a pandemic that's infected 232 million people to date, and killed 4.8 million of them, has a silver lining. But it has resulted in high demand for affordable, easy-to-use testing kits, prompting traditional manufacturers to expand into non-traditional offerings that will benefit society.
These kits, and the lab system they plug into, are going to need good design in order to be effective. Product design professors looking for globally-significant assignments for their students should take note. (And for an example of redesigning a kit that better corresponds with an analysis infrastructure, have them check out the work of Kate Strudwick.)
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