Why is Research Important?
For some of us, the answer to this question may seem fairly obvious, but for others, it can be difficult to see the value of research or even taking the time to dive into it properly. Your ideas come from your own creative brain…why should you spend time looking at what other people are doing? Or maybe you researched a little bit and decided you’ve seen enough. How much more could there possibly be, after all? We spoke with Tim Craig, Inventionland’s Vice President of Design & Development, to help us answer this question.
Research Is Universally Important
According to Craig, the importance of research isn’t just for inventors. “Research, to me, is the best place to start with anything you’re doing in life,” he said. “You want to know what you’re getting yourself into before you start thinking you’re on the right track. Research can be done quickly and easily, but really diving in and doing thorough research can be pretty taxing. It can be easy to find things sometimes because everybody’s looking for them, but there can be other times when you’re trying to find something specific and it’s never been there before so you can’t find much on the topic. I can’t express how much research helps to move the creative process along.”
So, for anyone who sets their sights on any project in any field- research is your best friend. It may be taxing and tedious, but (as Craig stated) you need to know if you’re on the right track. But for inventors specifically, where do you start?
Types of Research
For the most part, experts like Craig focus on two main types of research: product research and patent research. Product research involves looking for similar products or ideas that are on the market or in concept form. Patent research requires digging through patents to see if anyone has already registered a similar or identical product.
According to Craig, one of the hardest parts of product research is pushing yourself: “It’s a scary step because you feel like you have this idea that no one has ever had. So you go in very timid because you don’t want to find the idea, you want to be the one that claims it exists. So there’s a little bit of that where you have to do your due diligence and at least attempt to find a similar product that either solves the problem you’re trying to solve or is exactly like your product.”
If you’re ever feeling timid or hesitant to find a similar product…don’t. It may end up actually making your invention stronger: “You can bring me any product that exists and I can find some unique feature about it,” Craig said. “So doing research on your products and finding similar things isn’t a way to hinder you, it’s a way to make something better. Don’t just think you have the best idea either, you can always find ways to improve upon it. And when you do see similar products on the market, it also tells you there’s a market for it and people want this thing which is a good thing.”
If you ever find that you need to actually expand on your invention idea, one of Craig’s personal favorite research tools is a site you’re most likely already well-versed in. “These days one of my best tools of research is the good old YouTube,” he said. “(With) so many things on YouTube, you just type in whatever you want (how to, what is…) and there’s somebody explaining to you their point of view on the subject. YouTube is one powerful tool to just understand what other people have done and you can pick up right where they left off and/or get ideas from where they are and make your own conclusions from there.”
Patent research is equally important because the patent process is extremely complicated and can be expensive, too. There are a lot of specifics that go into it, so you must do your research to help you avoid problems later on. According to Craig, patent research works best after your invention has been created and finalized: “We [recommend] patenting your idea after the process as opposed to the beginning because you never know, throughout the process, what your product is going to turn into…We’re mostly looking for similar concepts that have been patented. Once we get those in, the design staff reviews them and looks at the claims and sees whether you may or may not be infringing upon a patent.”
Another important facet of an inventor’s research is market research. This requires looking at the possible market for your product and comparing your product to that of competitors. It also allows you to begin to gauge your audience and get ideas on how to market your product later on.
Knowing your audience is important for several reasons. “Market research is important just to understand how many units you’re going to need to get manufactured and distributed,” Tim explained. “If you know you’re catering toward every person over the age of 20, then you know you’re going to have to invest a lot of money to tooling costs and production costs. And there’s a huge distribution channel to get through and push all these products. Marketing your product is pretty much the next hardest thing to creating the product because, once you create the product, you have to get it found. Knowing how many people are going to find you and what people are going to find you is all important. It’s also something we do in our design work because we’re trying to market towards [certain people]. So we use market research to understand what we should be doing in terms of packaging, ergonomics, and design. Understanding your market lets you understand how big or small your idea is, and either is good.”
Not only does this type of research allow you to know the size of your market, but it also helps you begin to understand the competition and figure out how best to differentiate your invention from any similar models. What makes your invention better than ones that have preceded it? Or, as Tim puts it, “What is our point of difference? And that’s what you dwell on. Whether it’s cheaper, whether it’s easier to manufacture, whether it ships in a better container or if it has a unique feature that outdoes the other one.”
Different experts vary on their point of view as far as competition goes. Some recommend you model yourself after Apple and just push forward without looking back at what anyone else is doing. Others, like Tim, recommend working hard to set yourself apart. And, in Tim’s experience, there’s one sure fire way to do that, “In the world we live in, the price usually trumps all. Just because you’ve got a better feature, if the competitor is cheaper, they’re going with the competitor. Sometimes we see great products die on the line just because of cost. It’s sad to see some of those that didn’t make it, but understanding the cost of your product is another big thing in research.”
According to Craig, the sad truth is that companies are less likely to invest in new products that are more expensive to manufacture. It’s simply easier to take a risk on an unknown product when the price tag is lower. Therefore, when you’re prototyping your invention and researching product design, it’s in your best interest to try to design your product in the most cost-effective way possible.
Rather than focusing on creating this super high-quality expensive product, try to create one that would be affordable for manufacturers to pick up. There’s always time for the more expensive model later. “Wait until you’ve got ten years of sales or three years of sales or five years of sales [experience]. Enter the market in your path of least resistance, and then put your bells and whistles on. Knock yourself off [the market] with your improvements before you allow someone to knock you off. Start with the base model, then make your iPad pro, Gold, XL, XS model.”
Now, we could give you a long-winded summary of the importance of research and how seriously crucial it is while wagging our metaphorical fingers in your general direction. However, we think Tim puts it best: “You can’t ever do enough research. Because tomorrow is a new day and whatever you researched yesterday is already over.” Well said, Tim.
Beyond brainstorming, some may argue that there is no step more important in the invention process than creating a prototype. Being able to hold your idea and see it in action outside of your head…that alone is a powerful, one-of-a-kind feeling. Having a prototype used to be a luxury, especially if your idea was complex. The very concept of the current “rapid prototype model” was once the stuff of science fiction. Yet over the past few years, the boom in prototype production has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing inventions find their core audiences.
Once, prototypes had to be created by hand from the material of choice. It was time-consuming and required specialized skills. Didn’t own a sewing machine? You’d better find somebody who does, or your prototype won’t be using fabric. Metal and wood required safety equipment and usually a workshop. Plastics were even more of a nightmare. In the 1980s, cutters could only move left and right or forward or back. Creating curves would mean using dremels, files, and knives.
Then came the 1990s, and with it, CNC technology. Using CAD to program the machines, circles could now be cut with ease. The pantographs previously used for cutting curves into flat plastic were gathering dust. By the 21st century, computers allowed inventors to draw their creations in 3D and work on all three axes. 3D printing in the mid-to-late 2010s revolutionized prototyping even further. Terry Wohlers, President of Wohlers Associates, said in an interview:
“Additive manufacturing (3D printing) technologies create a world of possibilities that can take an organization in an entirely new direction and help launch new businesses and business models. 3D printing and 3D imaging are causing design and manufacturing professionals to rethink their approach to new product development… As new additive manufacturing systems and materials become more widely adopted, I expect to see new designs that previously would have been very difficult or too expensive to manufacture.”
Keep in mind, Wohlers first said this back in 2012. It’s only rung more and more true in the years since.
Each decade, advancements in technology have made using plastics for prototypes even more accessible. For other materials, there were also revolutions. When it came to fabrics–both the usage and creation of–the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) built their state-of-the-art headquarters in 2017. Companies like RevPart offer services to create rubber or plastic parts for prototypes affordably and efficiently. In the past few years alone, 3D printers have become common household appliances, making prototyping possible without the aid of a specialized company. Of course, these companies can produce better results, with far more materials, but inventors are less reliant on them.
More specifically, the past five years have created nearly exponential growth in the prototyping industry. In 2017, IBIS World reported a 16.5% growth in the 3D printing and rapid prototyping industry, reaching a revenue of $131 million. (Growth for 2018 had not been recorded at the time of this writing.) Within the same time period, the number of businesses in those industries increased by 11.5% and the number of employees went up by 14.3%.
This is all thanks to the rapid prototype model. Even the limited tools of the 1980s were the first steps to the process we know today. But RPM is more than simply visualizing your invention in 3D. It’s being able to check the efficiency and effectiveness of a product before mass manufacturing. You can test each individual element for durability, energy consumption, and output. Because the process is more accessible, making multiple prototypes to test small design tweaks is less risky and less expensive. This is only accented further by the rise of digital prototyping, or creating a virtual model of what the finished product will look like. Instead of having a physical copy of your invention, you have a virtual 3D model to show investors. This method is far less costly than a traditional prototype, but doesn’t suit all projects. For simpler ideas, a physical prototype might be the better option.
Indeed, having a prototype can cost you less in the long run. Being able to test your product and check for defects before mass-production can prevent modifications or even recalls in the future. It also aids in further streamlining the process, as viewing the production in real-time can help determine what steps can be altered or removed. Maybe two parts that were originally produced separately could be adjusted into one larger, more durable piece. This is something prototyping would help you discover before hitting the production line.
Another perk of having a rough prototype on hand is that it helps with your pitch. When first showing off your product to investors, even a very basic prototype can help garner interest. It showcases not only what the device is capable of, but also your own initiative and confidence in your product. However, most industry experts agree that having a basic prototype with customer interest is far better than a having polished prototype with no customers. Christopher R. Chapman, president and owner of Derailleur Consulting, Inc., wrote:
“By the time you’re seeing VCs or angel funders you should be able to speak in terms of how many people are using your product and what your real expectations of a customer base are based on real-world feedback… To this end, get a minimum viable product in front of customers and run through the build-measure-learn-feedback loop. Accelerate the application of your learnings into your product, get some passionate early adopters and build a community of support that you can then take to investors as validation of the ideas. Of course, you could also learn from this exercise that your product isn’t that interesting to customers. Better to learn that cheaply rather than sinking a lot of money, blood, sweat & tears into a polished/pretty prototype.”
In short: Having a functional, if unpolished, prototype during a pitch meeting with an established audience means more to the investor than having a fancy-looking product nobody wants to buy.
Still, having a good prototype could make or break the pitch meeting. One thing all successful Shark Tank pitches have in common? A working prototype with a built-in fanbase. Conversely, a contributing factor to many flopped pitches on the program was a lack of interest in the product, accompanied by no more than a few rough sketches and hypothetical musings.
Some, however, argue that having a prototype too early might hurt your chances. Make sure you take the whole pitch process into account. Do some research about the companies where you will be presenting your invention. Find out what the next step for your product would be after pitching, and adjust your plans regarding prototypes accordingly.
Also, remember what a prototype is not: it is not a fully-functional version of the final product. It is not the product but missing a few key features or functions. It is a model of the invention, scaled down to be easily made with limited resources. If you’re pitching a bridge design, for example, you bring in a toothpick model as a visual, not a bunch of bricks. Vijay Anand, founder and CEO of the Startup Centre, explained that “the biggest mistake that most folks do, is trying to build a product when they keep saying it’s a ‘prototype.’ The other common mistake often made is that they take a product which has 10 features and essentially pick one or in some cases two, and then say, let’s build that and call that a prototype. Both of these are fundamentally wrong. A prototype is a much [more] basic version of the concept, not feature, to showcase what you are trying to do (aka, the solution).”
Creating a prototype is important to finalizing your product and turning your idea for an invention a reality. But it’s also not the final step. It’s another form of testing the waters, as well as gaining interest from consumers and investors alike. Prototyping is an industry of its own, one that continues to grow more prominent with each advancement. The rapid prototype model has helped many get their inventions of the ground. Hopefully, it’ll do the same for yours.