Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter 'Great Things to do in Melbourne - the White Hat guide'
The White Hat Inventions & Innovations Newsletter
Archived Newsletter - March 2012
It has been some time since we sent out a White Hat Inventions Newsletter, but not its time to get back in harness. In this edition we thought we’d concentrate on the all-important issue of creating a prototype for an invention.
White Hat congratulates Marita Cheng on becoming Young Australian of the Year. We have a feeling that the organisation she helped to establish - Robogals - will produce some important female Australian inventors before too long. You can find more information at Robogals
Inventor 1 walks into a room of people who have the potential to help them get their invention to market. “I’ve got this great idea . . .” Eyes immediately glaze over. The world is full of people who feel they’ve had a great idea but if they don’t know how to make a model or prototype and haven’t been bothered to put in the effort to learn (if necessary asking for help along the way) the people in the room know that it is likely to be just another untested theory which never comes to anything.
Inventor 2 walks into the room and says “Here I have wondrous device which I have made and let me show you how it works. Of course it’s rough and ready but with some industrial design input and some professional marketing I think we can all help make people’s lives a bit better and earn some money in the process.”
There is no doubt that a prototype can be crucial in attracting interest and support for a new invention.
Another of the major reasons that a prototype is important is that most successful inventors will tell you that is rarely if ever that prototype No.1 or No.5 that makes its way into the world. It may be No.25 but it is more likely to be No.125. And with each iteration the inventor is learning more about their creation and adding critical value to the initial idea.
There are many occasions where being first to market with a good but homespun looking invention doesn’t ensure success. However one that has gone through many prototypes and design improvements is more likely to establish itself against the competition that may follow. The iPad is a good example. The ‘invention’ at its core is the double touch interface and the way the changes the relationship with the hand held device – you hold it in your hand and it becomes ‘an extension of you’. The interface was already being mimicked with enough changes to make the copycat versions legal-maybe and virtually all the other aspects had been around for some time – tablets, WiFi, 3G, online newspapers, etc. The challenge was therefore to hit the market with a product that was so well designed it would have the competition playing catch-up for some time to come, and you can be sure that the prototype number was not 5 or 25.
So for most out there Edison’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration still applies and when the current prototype can be improved it’s back to the workshop/lab/sewing room/computer or whatever to create the next version.
In the 1930s the inventor Joseph Friedman noticed a child having trouble using a standard drinking straw. He came up with the idea of the now-familiar bendy straw and quickly made a prototype by inserting a screw in the top of a conventional straw and using dental floss to force the paper into the corrugations. Having established that the idea worked he went home and made a number of prototypes until he had what he felt were the optimum characteristics. He then patented it and attempted to sell it to the existing drinking straw manufacturers. None were interested. He then found out what he needed to know about drinking straw manufacture and set up his own plant to make them. The rest is history.
That is why we used his quote at the start of the newsletter with its deliberate double meaning. “Chances are if you don’t know how to make it, you’re not going to make it.” – not going to make the product, and not going to make it as an inventor.
Probably the most exciting development for many inventors in the last five years has been the 3D printer. They have been around for numbers of years but only recently has their price come into the range of the home user. It is now possible to get one for under $1,000 and better prices are possible if you shop around.
A 3D printer operates by setting down thin layers of a fast-setting substance such as a suitable plastic and in the process building up a three dimensional object. The design of the object can be created on a home computer and there are already public domain libraries of shapes and add-ons that you may wish to use as a starting point. For some inventors who are wanting to create physical devices of a size amenable to a 3D printer, the device has a huge potential for producing successive prototypes. The prototypes may be the casing or holder for working parts or even possibly the complete invention
In some cases, where only a small number of devices are required at any one time, it may even be that the 3D printer is the most cost-effective production tool. It may also allow distribution costs to drop to practically zero as the electronic file can be sent to anyone with a 3D printer in any part of the world. As always, electronic distribution has its dangers of piracy of intellectual property from which no degree of patent protection or legal action will ever fully protect an inventor. However, for the philanthropic inventor merely wanting to create something to make people’s lives better regardless of personal reward or acknowledgement, the 3D printer may be the best and fastest way to get the invention spread across the world.
3D printers are capable of making objects with moving parts and are already being used by scientists down to the nano level with biomedical labs in Australia even contemplating ‘printing’ living organs using stem cells. Some far-sighted schools that are serious about encouraging student creativity have already installed 3D printers – see for instance Quantum - while we expect tertiary design departments will slowly begin give it a more prominent place in their curricula.
As we stated earlier, the technology is not new – just the affordability – and it is often in these circumstances that the talented researcher or home enthusiast can steal a significant march on the slower moving larger companies and institutions.
You can find more information on 3D printers at 3D Printers
We thought we might start a regular little section where we point out what White Hat feels are problems in search of a solution which might set some inventive minds in search of one. So here is our first offering:
Individualised high rise window cleaning
People pay good money to live in a high rise apartment and some have 180 degree floor to ceiling views. However the outside of the windows may only be cleaned several times a year because the process is expensive and cumbersome. Worse still, several days after the half-yearly clean they may experience a ‘dirty’ rain squall and their view is as compromised as ever. Similar problems apply to corporate function rooms, board rooms and - well, the list goes on.
If only there was a way to clean the outside of those fixed glass walls 15 floors up that was cost effective and available at short notice.
Maybe you have a solution?
The inventor has created a wonderful robotic device which is just the thing for doing – whatever it is they said it would do. The only trouble is that the inventor has to trail around after with a laptop computer umbilically connected to the wondrous device, Not nearly as convincing as if the there was a small computer on board acting by itself. There have been a few clumsy and moderately priced options around, but now a Cambridge-based organisation has stepped into the gap with a computer about the size of a credit card and the thickness of a finger called the Raspberry Pi.
It is no accident that this product is coming out of Cambridge. Some may remember the BBC Model B computer. This included some innovative hardware such as an operating system on ROM meaning no floppy disc or hard disc was needed to get started. You simply turned it on and it was ready to go. It also contained a built in programming language which was designed with the school and home user in mind. This computer was created by the Acorn company in Cambridge who soon after invented the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) chip which is central to many mobile devices today and will soon to become central to Windows 8. The BBC computer and ARM-based Archimedes were no match for the Wintel sales juggernaut and gradually faded from schools. At the same time computer education courses in schools became less and less about controlling the computer by programming it and more and more about becoming a consumer of software products and learning to use them (not very well). [We have previously referred to this at White Hat as the ‘Legofication’ of computer studies - using ready made bricks and whole objects which will only fit together in a limited number of ways as against the previous ‘Meccano’ model where the basic tools allowed you to build whatever your imagination created.] This situation so concerned a group of people based around Cambridge that they decided to produce a high performing low cost computer that would encourage people to get back to creatively controlling computers rather than being consumers of software and social media packages created by others. Other people who have become concerned by Britain’s emphasis on creating things include the inventor James Dyson and you can read some of his thoughts on the subject here.
The first Raspberry Pis are now being shipped. At this size, any keyboards, displays and other devices and controllers have to be plugged into the various ports or operate by Bluetooth or the like. However with something like a robotics application, a keyboard and screen is only likely to be needed to get the prototype up and running and then they can be unplugged. The Raspberry seems to have great prototyping potential for a variety of computer controlled inventions.
With its developers being based in Cambridge there is no surprise that it is based on the ARM chip. And being from Cambridge it also no surprise that rather than calling the current version something like version 2.01, they decided to call it ‘Model B’
You can find more information at Raspberry Pi.
Henry Ford was not an inventor - but he was certainly an innovator - someone who looked at things and said “this can be done quite differently and better.”
Most regard his creation of the ‘production line’ as his prime legacy in that regard. However, here at White Hat, we feel that he set in motion things that are perhaps more important.
Take for instance the way in which the vehicle was packaged and delivered. It came basically as a flat pack with the body panels forming the outside protective sheath. What a brilliant piece of industrial design, and one which firms to this day, such as IKEA, have learned and profited from.
Then, who were those who saw themselves having most to loose by the introduction of this new technology? Carriage-makers, blacksmiths and those involved in servicing the old horse and buggy industry. Henry Ford set up agencies so that the local blacksmith or carriage maker were those who would assemble the Model-T (with press photographs to show the local businesses were progressing into the future) as well as having the opportunity to add value through additional body work. Henry had turned potential business rivals into viral marketers who were delighted to drum up extra business.
It is not the best product, or the most needed product, or the most alluring product that always wins out. It is often one where the supply chain has been thought through in advance.
Henry is one of those people that remind us that is rarely enough to be creative only in the field of making a new product. Most successful inventors also realise they have to be creative in the areas of business and marketing as well unless they want their invention to remain just a good idea relegated to the realm of history - and we all know what Henry said about history.
Perhaps one of the greatest prototyping opportunities on the horizon for some inventors is the NBN (National Broadband Network). When the railway was first mooted for certain country towns over a century ago, some said “We have no need for it. I only go to the city once a year”. And even if they only continued to go to the city once a year, the railway changed the nature of living in the town for ever with the arrival of fresh vegetables, fresh ideas, small businesses being able to compete with their city rivals and a whole lot more.
The same people a century later say “There’s only so many movies I want to download” as though the NBN should only be treated as a channel through which to consume things.
Fast broadband throughout the country will allow Australian innovators to catch up and compete with their rivals in countries which already have such resources. But, in particular, it gives the opportunity to test their creations country wide across the population in a way they have never been able to do before. Some politicians and much of the press may believe that broadband is mainly about consuming overseas products but many local inventors know the potential of wealth creation for the future economy once they can test and hone their products by interacting with most of the Australian population across a world class piece of infrastructure. In White Hat’s opinion, the NBN may be one of the most important leaps forward in Australia creating wealth through its home grown inventors and innovators
White Hat congratulates Ed Linacre, a design student at Swinburne University of Technology, for winning the prestigious international James Dyson Award for his invention of a system of extracting water from the air in drought prone country and directing it to the roots of plants.
Even if it hasn’t rained for months, the air still contains some water vapour. In fact warm is capable of holding more water vapour than cold air as anyone who has lived in the tropics will know. When warm air comes in contact with a cold surface some of the water vapour will condense, hence the misted-up windscreen on a cold morning. Linacre’s invention uses solar panel to create power to cool the air, extract the moisture and distribute it at root level to the crop. You can read a description of how it works here.
“Just wanted to say what a blessing it was to find your list of Aussie inventions! We are hosting an Aussie themed festival here in Atlanta in May and I'm in the process of organizing an area with various Aussie Inventions - to educate the Yanks a bit. This just made my job a whole lot easier! Thanks again. Cheers! Tina Down Under Fest Director”
For those of you near Atlanta (and we know we have a number of American subscribers), you can find information at Down Under Fest.
Inventions are usually about making things differently (and better). Innovation is about doing things differently (and better) just as Henry Ford did, so let’s have a little quiz about innovation.