An inventor at work

Inventors' Inbox - Inventions to help inventors

Our inventors share ideas for inventions that would make their own lives easier.

Patrick: Despite all the current talk of collaboration and open innovation, inventors often seem to be rugged individualists who don't tend to be good at seeking out sources of support for their efforts. Most inventors get by pretty successfully with a pencil and notepad. Their greatest 'tool' is the ability to sit quietly in a corner and allow ideas to pop into their minds. I'd therefore put monochrome, textured wallpaper on the list, as something to stare at while this is happening.

Mark: Many of the inventors I know are often not comfortable with the world they live in – a square peg in a round hole, if you like, and want to change or control it. Maybe this is one of the traits that led them to inventing in the first place.

Another common trait that I have noticed is mild to strong dyslexia, which means their mind works in a more graphical way. I think this helps with visualisation and leads me to believe that, to help stimulate the inventing process, a more visual (using the right side of the brain, rather than textual left) solution would be more effective.

Patrick: Very few of the really successful inventors have been high achievers at school. It's hard to take on board conventional learning, I guess, while cussedly refusing to accept the status quo. Maybe we need some inventors to start running classes for those kids at the back who are staring out the window at imaginary worlds, rather than paying attention to English Lit or Polynomial Series. I'd be keen to give this a go.

I'm sure that the best ideas arise when an individual inventor is left alone to play with ideas and even, as Edison once said, a roomful of junk. All my surplus shed stuff goes to a kids' club called Remake.

There are lots of techniques to help ideas happen, of course, beyond the whole daydreaming thing. Industry would love to be able to mechanise and streamline the process of inventing using techniques such as brainstorming or TRIZ (theory of inventive problem solving), for example.

Mark: Brainstorming can be effective, but I'm not a fan of TRIZ (or as I call it DBPA: designed by posturing academics), as I feel it adds unnecessary complexity and may even stifle free thought, rather than encourage it. Mind-mapping systems may assist with dyslexia but the jury is out, in my mind anyway, whether it assists the inventing process.

As you know, I am not a tree-hugging type,'but what works for me is to use my subconscious mind. I choose an area to invent for and then immerse myself in finding out everything I can about it via the Internet, trade journals, patents, etc. Once I feel that I have read everything there is to read and fully understand the problem and its market, I stop and try to forget all about it.

Hopefully, in a day, week or months' time, an idea will just pop into my head (normally at around 3am in the morning or after 20 laps of swimming). This works because your subconscious mind keeps working, unbeknown to you, in the background and comes up with solutions. This can be a very powerful tool, if honed correctly.

Patrick: I seem to have developed, through practice, a mental trigger which causes me to recognise problems in everyday life that most people just live with. Not just the Global Grand Challenges but the ones that make you think 'Damn, this small nuisance happens to me every day at this time'. One of my background projects is to create a computer program that can spot long-range similarities between apparently unrelated problems, so that solutions for one can be adapted to work in other contexts.

Mark: Yes, I am the same. If something annoys me, it is likely to annoy others and so it may have that important element – 'a market need'. Again, it is a mindset thing that you can cultivate by programming yourself to notice these things.

I also believe there is an untapped gold mine of opportunities out there in adapting known technologies into other areas that have never been indentified or even considered before. A computer program with the right formula and enough critical data to be effective would certainly have commercial merit. Although, being exposed to many diverse projects yourself, and using a little lateral thinking, you can achieve great results without the aid of computers.

Patrick: Other inventions that I find to be valuable include Google patents, which used to be such a good tool for the simple reason that you could glance through huge numbers of drawings when doing an initial search. Sadly, they have recently gone all Google+ and ditched that functionality. [Update: there is now a version which provides scannable diagrams... but their small scale makes it hard to distinguish between a screwdriver and a scramjet.]

Although I'm no fan of patents (let alone the patents system), I can see the possibility of creating a computer language which might be used to write patent claims in such an unambiguous and unique way that they could be automatically compared to prior art. Ninety per cent correct would mean no more delays, decreased litigation, etc. and suddenly Freds-in-a-shed like me get a seat at the table (if anyone fancies funding the project, they can get me at the usual address).

Mark: Yes, it is a shame about the Google patents. That aside, I must say that the Internet itself is still probably one of the most important tools ever devised that can help in the inventing process and business. The Web's powerful searching facilities, sources of information (both good and bad) and access to patents is empowering.

In relation to 'no fan of the patent system' – join the club. What you are proposing however is wholly impracticable as claims are 'the heart of a patent' and are written in such a way as to be effective, by someone schooled in the art – a patent attorney. It is already a highly complex process to get right, so adding another element would kill it.

Patrick: I make daily use of Wordpress as a medium by which to publish my blog 'Invention of the Day'. This provides me with lots of feedback from readers (most of which is actually valuable rather than snarky).

I also use an old Lenovo tablet device with a great touchscreen. This enables me to quickly scribble sketches of new ideas and it has the critical advantage that some parts of a drawing can be cut, resized, recoloured, etc. in a way that paper just doesn't allow. Lots of inventors rely on CAD systems but I find even the relatively user-friendly Google Sketchup gets in the way of my thinking with its non-intuitive interface.

Mark: Actually, I know it sounds a little old-fashioned but I still use CorelDraw (2D) for conceptual work. I used to teach this design software and by knowing it so well, it does not interfere with my thought process. It is one step up from drawing on paper or the monochrome, textured wallpaper you mentioned earlier, but it gives you the capability to get something down on printed paper fast, which is easily changed and reprinted – no rubbing out! Obviously, I transfer it to 3D later.

Patrick: Well I feel we have made some progress in that we don't rely solely on the backs of envelopes, fag packets or napkins.

As well as tools to help inventors think, there are those which help them communicate their inventions to others. Meccano has a lot to answer for. It used to be that inventors had to prise pieces from the grip of their offspring in order to demo new concepts. Now, it's increasingly difficult to find components which aren't part of some pre-built 'Harry Potter' universe...

Mark: Things change, sometimes for the better, to move with the times or go under. The Meccanos and indeed Legos of this world are proof of that. It is also harder to find individual parts these days because we live in a much more throwaway society, where composite parts are so cheap to replace it does not make sense to replace an element – if something goes wrong, it would cost more to repair than replace the whole thing.

Patrick: Since the original Lego patents are probably no longer active, maybe we could use 3D printing to pump out large numbers of low-cost, bog-standard bricks? I once used these to mock-up a new robot wrist mechanism but sometimes inventors find that a 'toy' being used in a prototype makes it less commercially credible.

I've also heard of people using mouldable modelling clays like Sugru. You have experience in that area, don't you, Mark?

Mark: Yes, I have used mouldable clay products and the silicone Sugru, which are both activated by exposure to air. I have also used plastics that melt in hot water and harden to a very tough solid state when cooled. They all have their special uses and some work better in a given area than others.

Sugru is ideal for repairing many objects, like shoes or broken handles, etc. The melting plastic Polymorph is great for creating shape ideas and actual moulds – the latter by encasing an object and then removing by cutting the Polymorph in two halves using a knife while it's still pliable.

Patrick: Recent research has shown that people have more 'disruptive' ideas if they think about very distant scenes, so I've even taken to staring at the Moon through my wife's telescope occasionally.

If I had to think of the single invention that supports inventors most, however, I'd probably nominate the espresso machine. The draught Guinness beercan widget, while a similarly great idea, has an oddly negative influence on my inventive output. *

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