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Bioengineering Excellence by Design

One of the industries I am personally interested in, having spent my last career role at Monsanto and with a son who is gaining his degree in the area, is biotechnology and especially given my own engineering background, bioengineering.

Bioengineering is the application of engineering principles to improve product design and production efficiency in the application of biology to new uses in medicine, agriculture, and other domains.  The biotechnology industry in general is still in the ‘pre-engineering’ stage, where the management, manipulation, and recombination of biological elements is largely manual, complex, laboratory activities requiring great care and special knowledge.

Compare this to the industrial age where parts were commonized and processes automated.  This enabled the transposition of core elements (chemical elements like iron, air, etc.) into generally usable materials (steel, screws, plastic, etc.) and then components (motors, transmissions, gauges, fabrics, etc.).  These were then combined into complex, yet resilient and reliable products (automobiles, refrigerators, furniture, etc.).  This process became commonplace, yielded high quality, and dramatically lowered costs to manufacture.

I recently listened to a lecture at MIT on Synthetic Biology by Drew Endy.  Drew is highly active in the bioengineering field.  With a background in Civil Engineering, he brings to biotechnology the interest to apply the same kind of engineering enablements that other fields have enjoyed.  Drew highlights four key engineering improvements that bioengineering can enable to move the field forward:

1)      Biosynthesis:  This is the act of using information and raw materials to essentially ‘manufacture’ DNA. The cost, ease, and effectiveness of this approach drastically changes the nature of bio creation from manual art to an engineering science.  It also calls lays open the door for the next three improvements.

2)      Standardization of Parts:  Like screws, or tires, or internet protocols, every industry that desires to grow must develop standards for parts and supplies.  The biotechnology area is still very immature in this regard.

3)      Abstraction of Components:  Every industry eventually seeks to combine details ‘under the covers’ and provide capability without need for detailed understanding of the internal mechanisms.  The Automobile industry perfected this and also the supply chain that provides the components.  The Information Age also leverages this:  your use of the browser to read this article relies on the interaction of millions of individual parts, yet the system works because its execution (and interfaces among them) has been abstracted across a relatively few set of standardized components.

4)      Decoupling the Process: Today’s biotechnologist must play the ‘Renaissance Man’ role and have many skills.  Mature industries have design, engineering, systems integration, manufacturing, maintenance, marketing, financial, legal, etc. decoupled, allowing simpler roles, greater specialization, and improvements in each.

Bottom line, biotechnology has yet to develop the engineering methods to enable that industry to make the same leap forward that the Industrial Age and the Information Age made.  But the recipe is similar.  Bioengineering of common parts and subsystems, means of exchange and communication, standards for quality and security, and even laws of ownership and licensing, all must be evolved.

The point is, Bioengineering has the challenge to improve the Excellence of Biotechnology by designing these types of systemic capabilities, methods, standards, so that this nascent industry can proceed in a more effective fashion.  ‘Effective’ here meaning to enable greater progress and utilization of its potential, while improving efficiency and cost, and enabling secure and rightful application.

Make no mistake, this is a huge challenge and  critically important.  The manipulation of DNA is moving from manual recombination (‘sequencing’) to true manufacturability (‘synthesis’).   While sequencing is still a bit of an art, attaining effective DNA synthesis will require bioengineering to enable ‘mass production’ in the same ways engineering improvements enabled the railroad, the automobile industry, and the Internet.

It is an exciting challenge for its potential, for the value that Excellence by Design can bring this critical new age.

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