(C) 1998 Market Launchers, Inc. -- November, 1998


Editor:  Paul Niemann

E-mail: [email protected]



In this issue: This issue is the second part of last month’s issue. As a result, it doubles as the November issue.

Article #1: "What Manufacturers Look for in New Products:" An interview with a manufacturer who licenses products from outside inventors.

Article #2: "Prototyping for Inventors" by Dennis Dohogne of the Mid-America Manufacturing Technology Center.


My interview is with Mike Prairie of National Presto Industries, a well-known manufacturer of small kitchen appliances. Mike is the Inventor Liaison for National Presto.

THE ONLINE INVENTOR:    Do you require new products to be patented or patent-pending?

PRAIRIE:    Not necessarily, but we do give preference to those products which have a utility patent issued. We’d prefer if the patent process has progressed beyond the initial application.

T.O.I.:    Do you require a working prototype, or is a drawing adequate?

PRAIRIE:    A prototype is not required, but it is helpful because it allows the product to be demonstrated. A drawing alone cannot always show how the product works. Like any manufacturer, we would prefer to receive new products that are patented, that have a working prototype and are ready for tooling, but that is not always possible. We are interested in inventions regardless of the state of evolution.

T.O.I.:    What can an inventor do to increase his chances of getting a manufacturer to look at his product?

PRAIRIE: Persistence and focus are very important. Finding the right person to send it to is important, too. You can find the right person by calling the companies that you want to submit your product to. Ask for the sales department or the marketing department. Some of the larger corporations have their own "new products" person that you can contact.

T.O.I.    Will your company help with the packaging once you’ve reached a licensing agreement with an inventor?

PRAIRIE: Yes, that’s all part of the development costs. The inventor should know, though, that the costs in designing the packaging will usually affect the amount of the royalty. But we realize that not all new products will be market-ready when they are presented to us. And that’s OK.

T.O.I.:    What are some of the "Do’s & Don’ts" that an inventor should know when trying to license his product to a manufacturer?

PRAIRIE: Don’t start the process by listing any particular demands for compensation. Most companies have pre-set parameters regarding royalties, and these parameters sometimes just are not very flexible.

Some inventors are too concerned with getting the product to work and, as a result, they ignore the marketability and the manufacturability of a product.

Inventors must have reasonable expectations. Be enthusiastic because you, as the inventor, are the one person who is most in favor of your product.

Your success may depend on the number of units that need to be sold. Your product should have relatively universal appeal; in other words, it shouldn’t be something for which its market is only a very limited number of people. Try to picture how your product would look on TV.

T.O.I.:    What kind of royalty percentage should an inventor expect to receive?

PRAIRIE: It depends on a number of factors: The potential market, initially and long term, the resale price of the resulting product, tooling costs to fully develop your product, advertising costs, and the projected continuity of the product. For example, for a product that sells on TV for $19.95, every unit sold will have $6 - $8 worth of advertising put into it.

We also look at whether or not a patent has issued. Most companies won’t pay any up-front royalties unless a patent has been issued. And the royalty percentage can decrease in time as the margins decrease. There may be a royalty paid as an advance against future sales.

T.O.I.:    What type of results have you had working with inventors?

PRAIRIE: We’ve really only been working with inventors for about a year, so it’s too early to tell at this point. It is tough to find that invention which meets the demands that we have. There must be a mutual feeling between the inventor and the manufacturer; by that, I mean that the manufacturer must be willing to work with the inventor as well as the inventor wanting to work with the manufacturer.

T.O.I.:    Does the inventor need to present his product to you in person?

PRAIRIE: At some point, if mutual interest is maintained, we may request you to present your invention directly to our "new products" group. However, we first have to go through the initial process of determining whether or not the invention has attributes which will enable not only efficient manufacturing within acceptable cost levels, but also be marketable to a sufficiently broad band of consumers.

T.O.I.:    What does an inventor need to know in order to increase his chances of getting a manufacturer to look at his product?

PRAIRIE: Inventors should try to know things like: How much it costs to manufacture, how many units the company can expect to sell, how the product is different or better than similar products and – if it’s more expensive than similar products – why it’s worth the higher price, and can it be patented? It helps the inventor to be able to explain all of these questions because if a company can’t answer these questions itself, then it may lose interest in pursuing the product. Also, it shows that the inventor has done his homework.

T.O.I.:    How important is licensing as a part of New Product Development?

PRAIRIE: Here at our company, it’s still too early to tell, but it could be very beneficial if we find the right invention. We do have a full-time R & D staff. I hope that people keep trying to be innovative.

T.O.I.:    How important is it, in general, for companies to work with outside inventors?

PRAIRIE: There is a growing interest in working with outside inventors. Stagnation in many industries increases the need for companies to look to outside inventors for new ideas.

T.O.I.:    What other advice would you have for an inventor?

PRAIRIE: Find out who all the major companies are in your industry, then find out what their intentions are, what they look for, etc. And going to trade shows is helpful.

# # # #

National Presto is always looking for new opportunities. They are capable of manufacturing a variety of products for the consumer market beyond kitchen appliances.

To learn more about National Presto, visit them on the Internet at www.presto-net.com/invent.html


"Prototyping for Inventors"

By: Dennis Dohogne, P.E.

"That prototype is actually our competitor's product with duct tape over the logo."

-- Dilbert

When I first read this I was holding a competitor's product that we had modified to test a performance enhancement we were working on. Dilbert lives!

But seriously, when you are prototyping something you basically have to be resourceful to get that accomplished, even if it means using something from the competition.

Inventors usually spend thousands of dollars of their own money getting their new products to market. And when you add this expense to the hundreds of hours that it takes to create and fine-tune an invention, you can see why an invention is so sacred to its inventor, and why each inventor wants to see his or her creation reach the marketplace.

But will it work? Will your invention be useful? More importantly, will your invention be valued by someone; valued enough that they will actually buy it? Those are, in effect, the "million dollar questions." So, how do you know, or how do you find out? The answers to these questions involve testing your idea and doing your market research. And the market research involves having something to show to the end users, in order to determine if they'll buy it.

Finding the answers to "Will it work?" and "Will they buy it?" requires prototypes of various levels. The very first "prototype" is the whole idea as it is conceived in your head. As you evolve your idea and document it, you must also consider how your product will be manufactured. The manufacture of a product is often overlooked in the development of an invention. I've seen many designs "that worked on paper" (or on the computer screen) but could not be manufactured at a reasonable cost.

Prototyping your idea is integral to the evolution of the idea itself. First you have a general idea then you refine it, evaluate it and refine it some more. The various prototypes will allow you to physically test against multiple criteria and resolve the issues that surface. Many inventors that I work with already have some type of prototype; others have only a sketch. Too many don't know how or what to prototype and what to test to verify the suitability of their design.

With each prototyping step, you should evaluate the design and how well it meets the various needs. You'll want to iterate through various prototypes to test the different aspects you must consider. For instance, if you have a product that will be molded and then coated with some material, you will, at least initially, prototype these separately. The shape will be one set of prototypes and the coating process will be another. For the coating process you can start with scrap pieces of material that have nothing to do with the shape. As the coating process evolves and the shape evolves you will be able to bring them together more successfully. As a famous person once said, "It is easier to eat the elephant if you first cut it up into little pieces."

By breaking your product into separate components to prototype you also make your overall effort easier to manage. This presents a clearer picture of your tasks and makes it much easier to debug the problems. Often when there is a problem with a complex situation the most effective way to figure it out is to break it up into separate components and investigate them without the confusion of the other aspects. It's to your advantage to start out this way.

Working on the components separately helps you to get to market sooner. Not only can you perfect each aspect before merging them; you also have made it easier to work on these aspects at the same time. This is called "concurrent development." Even though your time is personally limited, you can arrange for someone else to work on one or more aspects while you work on your set of tasks.

Whatever your product is you will generally prototype in several phases:

Phase 1 - Proof of Concept: These prototypes prove that your idea or specific aspects of your idea work. They likely will not represent the materials or the methods that will be used to fabricate them. These prototypes will mostly be used internally for identifying and resolving problems. They are typically too crude to be showing to potential customers for their feedback.

Phase 2 - Refinement/Fine Detail: These prototypes will evolve to merge all the aspects of your product. They will move toward the materials and methods that will eventually be used for production. You should have determined how the parts will be manufactured and evaluated them to make sure the design is suitable for those methods. You should have some kind of cost estimate to manufacture the parts. These prototypes have evolved to the point that you can start to show them to prospective customers for their feedback.

Phase 3 - Pre-Production: These prototypes represent the product in all its glory! They have the exact shape, material, finishes, etc. These can be used for market research and photographs for brochures and packaging. They should be functional and suitable for field trials, where you have several made and used in the field to give them the acid test. You should have complete production costs, which means that all production issues have been worked out.

With today's technology, the whole process of developing your product can be greatly improved, both in time and in the quality of the results. My specialty is mechanical product design. I use a very powerful and rather affordable solid modeling software. I can model many design iterations in a fraction of the time and expense it would take to physically build and test them. We are effectively doing virtual prototyping on the computer screen. We can check for clearances, slice through parts to see inside them, even incorporate the different densities of the various materials used and determine how much the product weighs and where its center of gravity is. Every client I've worked with has recognized not only how much time this has saved but also recognizes how much frustration and expense has been prevented.

I have modeling clay at my desk and I use it. A month ago I made a prototype out of cardboard, clear plastic sheet, wood and paper. We routinely have prototypes made from metals, plastics, wood, rubber or whatever is required. With desktop design capabilities, e-mail transfer of files and manufacturing companies with the ability to use these files without a lot of manual intervention you can have precise parts quickly. Four years ago I had designed a part and sent a file over a modem to a local firm that specialized in laser cutting. Two hours later I drove the 25 miles to the firm and picked up my 10 stainless steel parts for $167. Every dimension checked dead-on with my calipers. The next day I went into a meeting with a working prototype that was only an idea earlier in the week. I felt like a hero!

Today the situation is even easier. Solid modeling is becoming more available and more affordable. Flexible manufacturing methods such as laser cutting, turret presses and numerical control mills and lathes are everywhere. Rapid prototyping techniques such as stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), laminate object modeling (LOM), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and others have become very competitive. Service bureaus are equipped to help you model the parts in a solid modeling program and get them prototyped. Some even provide limited engineering services.

What does all of this mean to you as an independent inventor? It means that you should do everything you can to transform your invention into a product. You should get out your saws and files and drill presses and even your play-dough and evolve your idea into something manufacturable, valuable and marketable.

There are more resources available today to help you go from play-dough to the pre-production prototypes than ever before, and they are competing for your business. These resources will charge for their services so make sure you do as much as you can on your own, and find the right ones to help you. Instead of thinking of the expense as a cost, recognize it as an investment in your success. Look for someone that can help you flush out and solve the problems, one that can suggest the right materials and manufacturing methods and even add ideas for additional features. It is your money, so invest it wisely in the hope of getting your product to make even more for you! And it IS alright to use the competitor's product for a prototype!

# # #

Dennis Dohogne is an Engineering Consultant with Mid-America Manufacturing

Technology Center (MAMTC) in St. Louis, MO, part of the nationwide Manufacturing Extension Partnership (M.E.P.) - an organization that helps manufacturing firms improve their efficiency, reduce operating costs and add to their product offerings. He can be reached at (314) 731-1110 or at www.mamtc.com. Or to contact someone in your area who does what Dennis does, dial 1-(800) 637-4634 for an M.E.P. office near you.


Copyright 1998
Market Launchers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved


Click here to read the October 1998 issue.