Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Inventions Can Be Improved?

The answer of course is there are just too many to count. It might be better to ask “How can I improve on an invention, product or process?” With a little practice you can figure out just what inventions or products can be improved. The hard part will be figuring out how to improve them.

The next time you are doing some task or chore that is unpleasant, hard to do, or has some other undesirable characteristic, then you’ve found a target product or process. Some of the simplest ideas have produced huge fortunes for those who figured them out.

There are plenty of examples of products or inventions that could be improved, the harder question is, as I mentioned before, how to improve them. The next problem will be how to market or profit from your hot new invention improvement idea.

Here are a few inventions that in my opinion need improvement… maybe one of them will spark your imagination.

Invent a quiet vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaners are too noisy, so figure out a way to build a vacuum cleaner that is quiet. That reminds me of a clever invention I read about a year or two ago… the little fans in your computer. One of the noise producing parts of those little fans is the guard that keeps you from poking your fingers into the blades.

As the fan blades force air through the guard, noise is generated. A clever inventor figured out that if he built the guard into the fan blades so it would spin along with the blades a whole lot of turbulence was eliminated and a significant decrease in noise was obtained. You can touch the spinning guard, but you can’t get your fingers into the fan blades. Very simple and it works.

Putting pipe dope into pipe threads for sealing is a messy cumbersome job. How about coming up with a pipe dope dispenser that would eliminate the mess and make it quicker and easier to apply pipe dope to pipe threads. I actually built a prototype of one once, and it worked so well that the machinist who built the prototype made one for himself too. That was 20 years ago and he is still using it.

The way I did it was to get a plastic bottle with sides like an accordion. I can’t remember where I got it, but it was designed to collapse down to a small height when empty for storage and you could pull it up to full height when you wanted to use it.

I had holes made around the outside diameter of a lid for the collapsible plastic container that would just fit around different sizes of pipe… 1/8” pipe, ¼” pipe, 3/8 inch pipe etc. You simply pushed the pipe end into the hole and push down on the lid as you rotated the pipe 360 degrees in the hole. When you pull the pipe out of the hole in the lid the threads are perfectly filled with pipe dope and there is no mess.

I never did anything with it in the way of getting a patent or trying to market it. Maybe one of these days I might.

Teflon tape is also used to seal pipe threads. The dispenser is just a spool like small rolls of wire come on. But if you have ever used Teflon tape for sealing pipes you know what a pain it is to deal with. For one thing the end of the tape is difficult to grasp. It seems to have an attraction for itself. The tape is also difficult to tear off.

I took a razor blade and cut a serrated edge on the little spool, and now the tape is easy to tear off by pulling it across the serrations. And the tape gets stuck in all the serrations and thus it is easy to grasp the end of the tape when you need another piece. Again, I never followed through.

Remember, whenever you are doing something and think to yourself “there must be a better way”, and then figure out a better way!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Controlling Simple Machine Inventions with Microcontroller Chips

Inventions are becoming ever more complex. Complex inventions often require some sort of control system. It may be that a simple machine invention you have come up with requires several actions to perform its intended function.

Micro controller chips are a fantastic way to control simple machines and even highly complex machines. They are very small, incredibly powerful, and cheap as dirt! Micro controllers have a variety of built in functions including a microprocessor, voltage comparators, analog to digital converters, timers and more.

I’ve recently been seeing ads on TV for the Glade Sense & Spray motion activated air freshener. This is a great example of a simple machine, and I think a very clever invention. I did a Google patent search and came up with a patent application that seems to apply to this device, but it doesn’t mention anything about motion control, just timed and manual operation.

Application number: 11/247,793
Publication number: US 2006/0076366 A1
Filing date: Oct 11, 2005

It shows a motor and gears along with a lever to actuate a spray canister of aerosol fragrance. It also shows a schematic diagram of a circuit for controlling the device. The schematic doesn’t include device numbers and I didn’t really spend the time looking for them.

Microcontroller chips are made by a number of manufacturers and there are thousands of variations available. The smallest I’ve seen has 6 pins. Two pins are always needed to supply power and ground, which leaves you with 4 pins to use for inputs and outputs. I’m not really sure what the maximum number of pins available now, but I’ve used controllers with 40 pins.

I use Microchip brand controllers since I learned how to program and use them, and I bought a basic compiler so I could program in basic, which I find much easier than using the machine or assembly language. You can purchase a programmer for the chips for less than a hundred bucks, and you can download everything you need free from microchip to get into programming those little suckers. There are lots of online forums where you can get plenty of free help with your micro-processor projects.

For almost every project I done an 8 pin controller is plenty. To automate the automatic aerosol dispenser using a 12F675 microchip controller we would only need one pin for the output. We could use a motor or solenoid as the aerosol actuator. That leaves us with 5 pins to use as inputs. We could stay simple and connect a button for manual operation to one of the pins, a motion sensor to another pin, and two pins for a switch to select the mode of operation.

Which pins you use for what, depends on what peripheral devices inside the chip you are going to make use of. For instance, if you are going to use one of the voltage comparators you would need to select a pin that can internally connect to it. Not all pins connect to everything.

With these inputs, we can use a switch to turn on or off the motion detection, turn on or off the timer function, accept an input signal from the motion sensor, and output a signal to the actuator with one pin left over.

The controller has a built in clock circuit that is plenty accurate enough for this application. If you need highly accurate timing you can use a crystal to establish the clock frequency.

The next step is to program the controller to perform the functions you want. It’s very easy to do with a basic compiler.

Since we have an extra left over pin, we could hook it to a temperature sensor and add a little more complexity and intelligence to our air freshener dispenser. We could program it to ignore the timer when the temperature is below 40 degrees figuring that there probably aren’t any people smelling stuff in a room that is below 40 degrees. Or maybe we could have it spray more frequently if the temperature is hot.

Or we could use the extra pin for a photo detector and if the room is dark, then the dispenser won’t spray. Obviously we are getting a little carried away with our air freshener, but it serves to allow us to explore what these controllers can do.

We could switch to a chip with 12 or 14 pins and add a wireless receiver to the package for remote control of the dispenser as well. With additional pins we could add another output and connect it to an audio alarm. The chip could easily keep track of how many times it operates and sound an audio alarm that you are running low on fragrance and need to replace the canister. Likewise you can use another pin to drive a LED so you will have a visual warning of running low.

We still have pins so let’s add a microphone and detect voices. We can then write into the program that’s stored in the chip to begin its timing sequence only after hearing someone’s voice if the room has been dark for over an hour.

The micro-controllers typically have memory for storing the program, which doesn’t disappear when you power down the chip, and ram memory that does disappear when you remove power. Many of these chips even have serial communications implemented internally to the chip like RS232 and the like.

Now that we have the worlds fanciest air freshener dispenser ever, why don’t you study up on micro-controllers, and use one to control the next simple machine invention you create, or maybe even a complex machine.

Another Micro-controller article: Microcontrollers -- What They Are and How They Work

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Inventor... or Problem Solver?

I suppose just by the fact that I have invented things makes me an inventor. But that’s not really what I consider myself. I think more of myself as a problem solver. I love to solve technical problems and finding new ways of doing things better. Often that involves a new invention of some sort if there are patentable features.

I don’t know if there is any better feeling in the world than to have just solved some sort of technical problem that has eluded being solved by anyone else.

One of my favorite projects involved sealing conduits. A friend of mine was injection molding some parts for a guy that was selling kits for sealing large diameter conduits, the kind that connect the underground vaults to each other under our streets. His sealing kit was being marketed to a lot of large utility and communications companies like Bell South and Pacific Gas and Electric to replace existing sealing kits which had a few problems.

These underground conduits are made of plastic and after a few big trucks drive over the area they often develop cracks. When it rains the water seeps into the conduits through the cracks and drains into the vaults. The seal is to prevent the vaults from filling up with water.

He had solved a problem and obtained a patent and was now selling around 60,000 kits a month. The problem was his kit did not work, but no one knew that. It was only a matter of time though before someone would test his product and discover it did not really work. His customers routinely tested every few years.

The sealing kits his product was replacing had several deficiencies. These sealing kits used a two-part foam resin to create the seals. The resin was contained in two separate parts of a large syringe, about an inch in diameter and 8 inches long. To activate it you had to use the plunger to break the seal and mix the two resins together. Then you removed the plunger, switching it to the other end of the syringe to inject it into the conduit that needs sealing.

Once injected into the conduit it would rapidly expand forming a foam plug in the conduit and thus sealing it against water intrusion. The main problem was that the reaction between the two resins occurs in just a few seconds, and if you weren’t quick enough in switching the parts around on the syringe it could blow up and cover you with the expanding foam.

Another problem was no matter what size conduit you had to seal you always had to use the whole kit since it gets all used up every time.

The new syringe that the gentleman came up with was a double side by side type of syringe. The two resins would get mixed together as it went through a special mixing nozzle. The nozzle can be detached from the nozzle with a twist and discarded. A cap placed over the opening in the syringe seals the syringes and so you can use some of or all of a syringe depending on the size of the conduit.

Not only could it not blow up, but it saved money by allowing the correct amount of resin to be dispensed depending on the size of the conduit being sealed.

When he first came to me he told me he was having a problem with the mixing. He told me that he needed a better mixing nozzle for the syringe. He explained to me how the better the mixing, the smaller and more uniform the foam bubbles were, and how that produced stronger foam. He didn’t tell me about leaking conduits.

He told me that he was selling about 60,000 nozzles a month and expected to be selling over a hundred thousand nozzles a month by the end of the year. He offered me a nickel a nozzle if I could solve the problem. $3,000 a month? Let’s get started I said.

I asked for some nozzles and syringes of foam to experiment with and he gave me a couple of cases of the kits, and I went to work. The nozzles were long slender tubes with a bayonet type fitting molded into the inlet, and a small hole in the tip of the other end to dispense the foam.

Inside the tube were little turbine like mixing elements. Like little fan blades all stacked up. Each little turbine blade would divide the incoming flow of material into two streams and this was done over and over until the two parts exited the hole in the end of the nozzle.

I went at it using the old trial and error method. I would make some kind of mixing element and insert it into a nozzle and then fill a small plastic cup. After the foam set up I would cut it open and examine the bubble size and uniformity and look for un-mixed resin. I must have tried a hundred different things. I made different kinds of little thing to fill the tube with, made solid elements with a dremel tool and sticks of wood or plastic, and assorted other experiments.

I finally came up with a mixing nozzle that was far better at mixing the materials than what the gentleman was using. When I showed him the foam and he tried one of my nozzles himself he was sold. His top manufacturing guys were there and they were all impressed. And not only did the nozzle mix better, but it would be much less expensive to make than the mixing elements he was currently using. I’ve seen them at my dentist’s office where they use mixing nozzles frequently.

They are commonly used for mixing various types of epoxies and chemical compounds. I’ve seen them in applications from electronics to fender repair compounds for auto body shops.

We never pursued the nozzles, and I’ve never done anything with that idea. Maybe one of these days I’ll go ahead and apply for a patent. I wouldn’t know how to go about marketing it. Back to my story…

The gentelman told me he would test my new invention and let me know how it went. A couple of days later he called me and told me that it still didn’t work. I asked him what didn’t work.

It was only then that he explained to me about the conduits and the sealing against water problem he was having. Remember, he originally asked me to develop a nozzle that mixed the foam better… he did not mention anything about leaking conduits.

We had another meeting where we went over the whole thing this time, including providing me with several of the older kits he was competing against, and a few pieces of conduit for me to using in my testing.

For testing we took 4 foot long 6 inch diameter PVC conduit sections, plugged the end, and stood them up on end after the foam set up. After an hour we would fill the conduit with water and see if it leaked.

The old original kits sealed the conduits but the ones sealed with the syringes always leaked. After each test I would knock the foam plug out with a piece of 2 x 4 wood. I began to notice that the foam plugs that I knocked out were torn up in one spot, but intact an smooth on the rest of the surface that had been in contact with the wall of the conduit. It didn’t take me long after that to figure out that the foam plugs were only “glued” in one spot, the spot where the two part epoxy resin sat after coming out of the nozzle but before foaming up and forming the plug.

The foam plug would adhere strongly to the conduit where the puddle sat before foaming. As the foam rises it forms a skin on its surface and when it reaches the top of the conduit it doesn’t actually “glue” or adhere to the surface.

I took one of the nozzles and plugged the hole in the end. Then I punched holes radially around the tip. Now when the fluid in the syringe is dispensed it squirts out of the nozzle in all directions coating the entire inside diameter of the conduit with the not-yet-foamed resin mixture. It adheres very strongly all the way around. I could not even knock the plugs out with a 2 x 4. Problem solved; not a drop of leakage in any test.

Not long after that the gentleman with the sealing kits went bankrupt for other reasons and I never did see any money. Se la vie!

But one of these days I may get into the nozzle mixing element business. I could make mixing elements that work better than what is out there at about 10 percent of the cost.

Invention Stories and New Product Stories

Saturday, March 6, 2010

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Friday, March 5, 2010

How To Patent An Invention – Free Help for Inventors

A friend of mine told me he wants to know how to patent an invention and where he could get a boiler plate form to protect an invention.

Well… I really don’t recommend a do-it-yourself patent to protect an invention.

In theory it’s certainly possible to file your own patent application; I’m sure the forms are available on the USPTO website.

However, if your idea is worth getting a patent for then the last thing you want to do is to file your own patent application.

A good patent can be worth many millions of dollars, Look at Lego. They had a rock solid patent, and as soon as it expired the market was inundated with similar products, but it was too late… Lego had built up a successful business and brand and will do just fine.

On the other hand a patent can be a waste of money. Take a look at hot water demand system patents. There is the Metlund system which is patented, the RedyTemp which can be run in demand mode, and the Chilieppper, all of which do the exact same thing.

The Chilipepper is the only one that isn’t patented, and yet it does not infringe the Metlund or RedyTemp patents. They are very weak patents, and there wasn’t anything new and different about the Chilipepper to patent.

It doesn’t seem to have made a difference. But then there were already demand systems on the market. It’s when you have no competition or your product has some significant improvement over your competition that a patent becomes important.

Very few patents ever result in a product in the marketplace. There are plenty of reasons for this including poor marketing, the inability to manufacture at a reasonable cost, and as if often the case, lack of demand for the product.

So let’s assume that your great new idea is worth getting a patent. If you are going to go through the process of obtaining a patent you might as well do it right. Unless you are a patent attorney I don’t think you can.

Let’s begin with the patent search.

When you apply for a patent to the USPTO they will do a world-wide patent search. If you search only the US patent database there is a very good chance your patent will be denied due to a patent filed in a foreign country. It has happened to me.

But even searching the US database is a daunting task. Professional patent examiners use what the patent office calls a classification system. If you don’t pick the right class for your search you might as well not do the search because you will not uncover those critical patents.

I don’t fully understand the classification system, and I have no desire to become as proficient at doing patent searches as a professional searcher, but I do want good results. Nowadays a patent search done by your patent attorney, whom he subs out to a professional searcher, will cost around $500. Its money well spent.

Not only do the patent search results alert you to existing patents that can be in the way of your obtaining a patent, it can also suggest interesting new ways for you to look at your idea and improve it.

In the United States it’s not the first one to file a patent that counts, it’s the first person to think of an idea. That means that even if someone else gets a patent, if you can prove you thought of the idea first and can document that you followed the other conditions that apply, the other persons patent will be deemed invalid you will get awarded the patent.

One of the first things you should do is document your idea in a way that it could be used as good solid evidence in a court of law if it should ever come to that. One good way is to write down your idea as clearly as possible and with diagrams if needed, and then have it signed and dated by several witnesses.

Doing a patent search is another effective method, although it will be a later date than when you thought of the idea unless you live next door to a patent attorney.

If you go for a year without doing anything about your idea the patent office will consider the idea abandoned and you loose your thought of date. So again, have evidence that would hold up in a courtroom showing that you never let an entire year pass by without working on your new invention. Keep receipts and notes and whatever you need to clearly show that you never abandoned your invention.

If your idea is relatively new and un-tested, you might want to do some prototyping and developing before deciding if it is worth pursuing a patent. Quite often one discovers more patentable features once one begins developing and prototyping his new invention.

This was or is the case with my most recent invention for hot water demand systems. We know it will work, but cash flow doesn’t really allow us to develop it fully quite yet. As soon as I came up with the idea, we had our patent attorneys a patent search establishing the rough date that it was thought of.

We then filed for a “provisional patent”, which allows you to make changes to the patent language after you do some development work. This typically leads to a much better patent since so much unexpected stuff often shows up after the development process begins. That’s the upside to a provisional patent, the down side being the patent as with all patents only lasts 20 years. If you wait until after the development to file a patent application your 20 years will last longer.

That would only worry me if I thought the development time would be a number of years, which I suppose is often the case with some of the high-tech inventions being developed by big companies.

So my advice is to first figure out if you really need a patent, then do a patent search, and finally file for a provisional patent. And most importantly get a good patent attorney. These days I think a utility patent for a fairly simple idea runs around $4,000 - $5,000 but can be much more for complex high-tech invention ideas.

In my experience it generally takes 2 or 3 years to get a patent with a few battles with the patent examiners. This spreads the cost of the patent out over the several years, depending on the arrangements you make with your patent attorney.

A previous invention article – Simple Machine Inventions