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GE: Reinventing Tech for the Emerging World


How GE Healthcare engineers combined technology and creativity to develop the MAC 400, a portable ECG machine suitable for the Indian market

GE Healthcare engineer Davy Hwang's marching orders were straightforward. Take a 15-lb. electrocardiograph machine that cost $5.4 million and took three and a half years to develop. Squeeze the same technology into a portable device that weighs less than three pounds and can be held with one hand. Oh, and develop it in 18 months for just 60% of its wholesale cost. "He thought I was crazy," says Hwang's boss, Omar Ishrak, CEO of GE Healthcare's clinical systems unit, based in Wauwatosa, Wis.

Crazy or not, Hwang pulled it off. Like many teams facing tight development budgets, his engineers combined their technical know-how with creative tweaks of off-the-shelf parts. The result: The new MAC 400, GE's first portable ECG designed in India for the fast-growing local market. "When you stretch a team like that, it forces them to be far more creative," says Ishrak, who expects to recoup GE's $500,000 outlay in less than 18 months. (GE partners with Wipro (WIT) in India for health-care manufacturing and sales.)

Hwang did start with a few natural cost advantages. Raw computing power has improved vastly since GE made its last ECG in 1999, putting faster processing speeds into ever tinier chips. The new device has lower material costs, using less plastic and a smaller LCD screen. And of course, labor costs were cheaper: Eight of the nine engineers were based in India.

But some of the key cost savings came from simple modifications of ready-made parts. For the machine's printer, the team adapted one used in bus terminal kiosks in India. If they'd designed their own, says Ishrak, "it probably wouldn't have worked in the dusty environment." While it's normal for GE to customize processing chips for its medical devices, these require an 18-week advance order that would have "killed our cost target," says Bangalore-based engineering manager Oswin Varghese. Instead, the team bought a commercially available chip at a fourth of the price.

Hwang and Varghese also kept costs low by studying other products. From the team responsible for GE's portable ultrasound machine, they learned about a low-cost source for technology which can cut plastic mold prototypes far earlier in the process than usual. That let them get feedback from doctors before changes got costly. They also broke apart a semiportable ECG with obsolete technology built by GE in the '90s. Through that exercise they learned how dust from India's rural roads can jam the standard printers, which the older ECG used.

The MAC 400 wasn't completed without a few palpitations. Near the deadline, Hwang discovered the battery needed adjusting so it wouldn't be depleted while sitting on a distributor's shelf. And at times, the powerful "12SL" algorithm—the software that interprets electrical impulses for doctors—would overload the machine. The team simplified it to reduce the memory it was hogging.

After 22 months—only a few months over schedule—the device was ready for use. Dr. Girish Khurana, an internist in Bahadurgarh near Delhi, ordered one to take to his rural cardiac clinics: "I was surprised how light it was," he says. And Dr. S. S. Ramesh, who takes a mobile cardiology lab to rural areas each week, is a fan of its affordability—both for him and his patients. While his heart-clinic-on-wheels has its own ECG, taking along the MAC 400—at just $1,500, a fraction of its $10,000 predecessor—will soon let him charge patients just half what he did before.

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with Manjeet Kripalani in Bangalore.

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