CYBERTONGUE® – a first-of-its-kind, sensitive and accurate in-house testing protocol for detecting bacteria contamination in lactose products – is a shining example of the critical importance of product design in the development process of cutting-edge technology.

Image of Cybertongue

Bringing any new product to market requires so much more than a great idea. The collaboration and long-term partnership between Dr Stephen Trowell of PPB Technology (the developer of the technology behind CYBERTONGUE®) and Tricycle Developments, a Melbourne-based industrial design and engineering studio resulted in CYBERTONGUE® being awarded Best in Category for Product Design at the 2023 Victorian Premier’s Design Awards.

Theirs is a relationship built on mutual respect and trust. Tricycle understood from the earliest stage that CYBERTONGUE® was a game-changing piece of technology that had the potential to revolutionise food testing on a global scale. In designing its solution, the ultimate aim was to support PPB to be a success and position Dr Trowell and CYBERTONGUE® as a global technology leader.

Creating a product based on need and enhancing the user experience

Described by Tricycle’s Head of Strategy Luke Martin as a ‘paradigm shift,’ the team at Tricycle began working with Dr Trowell 8 years ago on an early stage demonstrator prototype. Over that period PPB evolved the science and technology and worked with Tricycle to simplify and refine the test protocol.

From proof of concept through to countless iterations and prototypes, CYBERTONGUE® was designed to reflect the ground-breaking nature of this innovative piece of testing equipment that puts milk-product testing into the hands of the manufacturers – rather than requiring expensive and time-consuming third-party lab testing.

Making something desirable and functional, the sleek, modular and practical design of this benchtop ‘analytical lab’ also serves to give potential customers confidence in the product with a level of sophistication intended to match the technology itself.

The interconnection between function and form

For science, design and engineering to come together in the most effective and functional way, Tricycle faced several challenges when approaching the design process.  First and foremost was the protection of the highly sensitive light sensors and sample temperature control.

As with other highly technical devices, the accuracy of results is paramount, so the design had to take into account the optimal conditions required to ensure precision. It was also essential to take this piece of sophisticated equipment and make it simpler for the user. A person operating it needs no scientific training. They can add a milk sample to a reagent, insert it into CYBERTONGUE®, turn it on, heat up the sample and receive an accurate reading/level on a screen within 10 minutes – as opposed to the three days generally required for a professional lab analysis.

Understanding the technical and scientific elements factored heavily into CYBERTONGUE®’s design. With the sensitivity of the samples, it was imperative to control light and heat. The sensors couldn’t be exposed to light for too long, so this limitation led to a very clever mechanical element being integrated into the design. The lid opens by sliding across – so it can be easily opened with one hand – and self-closes by springing back to place.

Another challenge was finding the right electronics partner that could develop the electronics and software of the instrument. In Xentronics, Tricycle found a team that met the project capabilities and shared its strong belief in the product.

Initially, Tricycle designers weren’t sure what size benches CYBERTONGUE® would sit on within a food processing plant’s quality and assurance area. They chose to design the unit as small and lightweight as possible, so it is unobtrusive but also portable. CYBERTONGUE® fits in carry-on hand luggage making it easier for a salesperson or user to be able to transport it safely. The choice not to include an internal screen was deliberate. The physical product interacts with the digital program on the screen via the intuitive language of a step-by-step process.

Why design is intrinsic to the growth of scientific and medical technology

While the Victorian Government is a strong advocate in raising the profile of scientific entrepreneurship and innovation in the state, Luke believes that the role of the designer in that process is often unsung.

‘I’d like to see the MedTech sector have a better understanding of the essential role that a good product/industrial design team has throughout the development of a product through to commercialisation – and not just treating design as an afterthought,’ Luke commented.

‘Making a new device, instrument or product appeal to customers takes more than functionality. The design adds value, it improves the user experience and has the ability to propel a product to a different level of market acceptance,’ he added.

Luke is passionate when he talks about the extent to which the right design team can make or break a product. An experienced designer is well-positioned to ensure the end commercial product meets customer needs.

‘It is unlikely that the company that develops a product will have the required time or in-house expertise to bring good design to fruition. I see our role as facilitating and bringing together a multitude of elements. A trained designer will act as the filter, working out what is important and what isn’t. We go beyond the aesthetic, providing support and guidance at every stage of the product evolution,’ he said.

‘Our clients partner with us because we provide the entire ‘package’ – from design research, concept design and prototype development through to vigorous in-house compliance and sourcing the right manufacturer. The products we design are so much more than pretty objects. Ultimately our goal is to design a product that people swear by not swear at. This is how we add value – and in the case of CYBERTONGUE® – help our clients shake up industries and realise their dreams,’ he added.

Further applications of CYBERTONGUE® design and technology

CYBERTONGUE® is currently scaling up production, a process being managed closely by Tricycle with the aim of ensuring that it continues to be manufactured locally.

While the platform initially targets liquid dairy and can be used on coloured, flavoured and sweetened products, the technology could easily be modified for use with other applications. In the future, CYBERTONGUE® could be adapted to identify allergens or other contaminants, such as complex liquid samples which would require different reagents, substrates, temperatures and timeframes, but the core platform and design would not need significant changes.

So not only does CYBERTONGUE® act as a risk management tool saving manufacturers from major disruptions in operations, but it also helps to improve food quality and safety, reduces waste and product recalls and increases supermarket shelf-life. Moreover, CYBERTONGUE® could also potentially save lives by providing a food testing solution that is incompatible with continuous production and just-in-time supply chains.

Elevating the standards of medtech design

Receiving a peer-reviewed award, especially a Victorian Premier's Design Award, adds to Tricycle’s credibility as a significant contributor to the MedTech sector. It also gives its designers the assurance that the work they are doing is valued and will help raise the profile of the product they designed.

‘We are fortunate to work with a number of start-ups and established medical and scientific technology companies, and many of them are Victorian. Despite the complexity of the projects, we find design plays a huge role in seeing past the technology and focusing on the outcome, commercialising products users love and, importantly, endorse.’ Luke said.

Winning awards is not new for Tricycle – but it is something the team does not usually actively pursue. In addition to the Victorian Premier’s Design Award, Tricycle Developments also took out Best in Category for medical and scientific technology at the Australian Good Design Awards for CYBERTONGUE.® It previously worked on other award-winning MedTech products such as Seer Sense (wearable epileptic diagnostics) and Nuraphone, and is currently involved in a number of new projects within the sector.