Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Should I Patent My New Invention Idea? How Do I Start?

If you are like most people you simply won’t do anything with your idea. Bringing a great invention idea to market is typically a time consuming expensive and very risky proposition. I imagine most folks don’t even have any idea of where to start or what to do.

In my opinion a good first step is to do a patent search online. It’s free and you can learn a great deal of information by doing one. You might discover your invention has already been invented and that will save you a lot of wasted time and money. You might have to just move on.

Seeing other patents related to your invention idea can spur your thinking on to making improvements in your original idea. You might come up with substantial improvements after viewing how others have tried to solve the same problem you are working on. By being familiar with other patents related to yours you will be able to develop a stronger patent application.

If your invention is patentable then you will have more options when trying to make some money off of the idea. Having a good strong patent on your idea will make it much easier to license or sell it to a large corporation, or can give you a virtual monopoly for almost 20 years. Even if your patent does not issue it will allow you to use the term “patent pending” on your invention, and can be almost as good as a patent when negotiating with potential licensing prospects.

There are downsides to obtaining a patent as well. For one thing they use up your valuable time, and they are not cheap if you hire a patent attorney. A patent attorney now days typically will charge anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 for a simple utility patent depending on how complex it is. If you want to go it alone it won’t cost much, but it will take quite a bit of your time.

Whether or not to obtain a patent should probably depend heavily on how strong a patent you can get. A good strong patent will provide you with that virtual monopoly for many years, where a weak patent really won’t do you much good. It may however, be good for your ego to have a patent in your name.

There is no substitute for a good thorough patent search done by a professional patent searcher unless you are experienced and or determined and you either live near a patent library or can visit one etc. But you can do a preliminary search yourself online with Google’s patent search engine and/or the USPTO’s search engine.

The USPTO uses a classification system for patents that groups patents into classes and subclasses. If you wish to search at the USPTO you should familiarize yourself with the patent classification system. Go to the USPTO website and in the “site index” look up “Manual of Patent Classification”. Study up on the classification system and learn how it works.

Even if you use the Google search engine it will benefit you greatly if you first learn the classification system the USPTO uses for patents. For instance, when searching using keywords on Google’s patent search engine, if you’ve invented an asparagus harvester you should search under not only “asparagus harvester”, but also “vegetable harvester”, “picking machine”, and other terms that could well have similarities to your invention. If your asparagus picker has an improved conveyor as part of if you would want to search patents related to conveyors, material handling, and the like.

A major problem with doing an online search is that both the USPTO and Google’s patent search engine only go back as far as 1976. Unless your new invention is very high tech and you are sure there are no related patents previous to 1976 you will still want to search both the older US patents and foreign patents if you pursue obtaining a patent.

Now go start learning about the USPTO patent classifications.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Built-In Self-Diagnostics for Your Next Invention

If your invention involves the use of a microprocessor then there is an opportunity to employ self-diagnostics in your new invention.

What is self-diagnostics? I think of it as the ability of a product to communicate to the user when something goes wrong and to provide strong clues about what it is that is malfunctioning.

A while back I invented a hot water delivery system that pumps the hot water from your water heater to your fixtures at high speed without running water down the drain and only when you actually want hot water.

The invention utilized a Microchip brand microprocessor chip to control the pump. When you want hot water you push a button which tells the pump to begin pumping. The pump mounts under the sink where you want the hot water. The pump has a built in temperature sensor that tells the microprocessor when the hot water arrives and the microprocessor then turns off the pump.

If the water in the pump is already hot then the pump will not start when the button is pushed. This is a safety feature to prevent scalding in case someone is in the shower and someone else comes along and pushes the button without realizing there is already hot water or that someone else is in the shower. This is necessary because the pump can be controlled from more than one location since often more than one fixture benefits from the pump. The number of fixtures affected depends upon your plumbing layout.

Another safety feature built into the system times the run time of the pump, and if the pump runs for over 3 minutes the circuit shuts the pump off. This is in case of a water heater failure. If no hot water arrives the pump will just keep running. This feature prevents that from happening.

Adding in Self Diagnostics Capability to the Invention

I took advantage of the power of these little microprocessor chips in several ways to build diagnostic capabilities into my new invention. They are simple, but seeing as they don’t require additional hardware or circuitry they are well worth the effort.

The first feature I added was to let the operator know that there was already hot water at the fixture when they pushed the button. Without such a feature the pump simply would not start. At that point the operator does not know hot water is already there and may simply thing the pump is not working. It’s quite likely the operator or homeowner will stand there and push the button several more times trying to get it to work. This makes for a frustrated customer.

What I did was to have the pump pulse on for ½ second twice, separated by a ½ second wait. When the home owner pushes the button and the pump pulses on twice, he knows the water at the pump is already hot and he can go ahead and use the fixture.

Another feature we added was to have the pump check for a short circuit on the control wires for the start button. Frequently customers will use X10 remote controls to operate the hot water pump. Sometimes the X10 controller, a UM506 remote receiver, can lock up in the on position which would cause the pump to behave in undesirable ways.

What I did was to have the microprocessor chip monitor the control wires. To start the pump the button needs to be pressed and then released. Upon releasing the button the pump starts up. But if the chip does not detect a release within 15 seconds it begins pulsing for ½ second every 15 seconds which tells the home owner there is a short on the control wires.

This feature has saved us a lot of grief and money. Without this feature the invention would end up being returned for warranty service and create unhappy customers. Now they know to check the button or the UM506 if this behavior occurs. If they email or call complaining the unit doesn’t work and the symptoms they describe match the self diagnostic behaviors built into the pump we can advise them quickly what the problem and solutions are.

It was certainly well worth the effort.

You can see the invention here: Chilipepper Hot Water Demand System

Provisional Patent Application – Do It Yourself – It’s Not Hard At All

I’ve reached the point with my selective asparagus harvester invention that I would like to begin marketing the machine. I have a website for the harvesting machine, a machine I’ve been working on for over 30 years. It was patented at one time, but the patents ran out long ago. However, I have not yet filed for a new patent or patents on the improvements I have made. If I reveal the improvements to the public on my website it creates patenting problems for me.

What we are trying to do is to find a progressive thinking asparagus grower or perhaps an organization that will purchase one of the machines. We will build it to order.

I would like to be able to discuss the harvester in detail on the internet website. Once I sell one to a grower, and the grower makes money using it, all of the other growers will want my invention too. There just aren’t that many asparagus growers. Word will spread very quickly. But no one really wants to be the first one to use a machine. I need all the help I can get with marketing. I need to be able to discuss the details of how my machine works.

The problem is that if I publish the details on the website I will seriously impact my patent situation. For one thing, in many foreign countries you have to file your patent before you publicize your invention. However, most of those countries allow you to file within one year of your US filing date. This would apply to both a regular patent application and a provisional patent application.

Publicizing your invention will start a one year clock ticking. Within that one year period you have to file your US patent. But if you publicize your invention and you haven’t filed for either the provisional patent or the regular patent then you lose the foreign rights.

A major portion of my market will be in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Peru if all goes well, so it would be nice to obtain a few foreign patents, but that is very expensive. If I file a PPA (Provisional Patent Application) I will have a year to file the foreign patents and I can even use the term patent pending on my materials.

However, if I don’t file my regular patent application within the one year the PPA just fades away and will never be looked at by anyone. In my way of thinking that means the only downside is that you have to pay the PPA filing fee. You really don’t need a lawyer.

A PPA only requires basically a very good description of my invention, how it works, and how to make it and use it. I don’t have to deal with the claims and all that stuff. I normally would not try to patent something without a good patent attorney. But with a PPA I don’t need to worry about the claims and hard stuff, I just describe my invention without worrying about all the legal jargon etc.

I can file the PPA myself without the cost of the attorney, and then a year from now if things are working out I will get the attorney and file the real patent application. If things don’t look so good I can just forget I filed the PPA to begin with. It only costs a couple of hundred bucks or so in filing fees. I think I will be able to file the application online too.

The PPA is not a patent and won’t result in a patent. It will however get you that extra year, let you use patent pending, and gives you time to get those foreign patent applications in even while selling and or marketing your invention.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Inventing and Marketing a Selective Vegetable Harvester – An Asparagus Harvester

I’ve spent the last week or so sprucing up my asparagus harvester web site. The site, www.asparagusharvester.com, is to let asparagus growers know that there is such a thing as an asparagus harvester that selectively harvests only the ripe spears.

I feel that the machine is ready for market, but since I don’t have a machine, just the blue prints, it’s hard to get someone to buy one. Not to mention there are no asparagus harvesters of any kind anywhere harvesting any ones crop. We cut up our last prototype for scrap a couple of years ago and unless someone orders a harvester we don’t have the money to build a new one. Oh well. It will happen.

That of course makes it even more difficult to market. No one wants to be the first one to use a machine.

The reason I’ve been working on the website is that I just finished re-designing my experimental selective asparagus harvester. Most of the emails I get from interested growers are individuals with fairly small acreage. I decided to take a close look at the economics involved with an eye toward a machine for small growers.

One problem with machine harvesting asparagus when compared with other crops is the fact that the asparagus field has to be harvested every day… the same plot of asparagus every day. With a tomato harvester once you harvest a field you are done and can move on to the next field. Same with grapes and most other machine harvested crops.

If you have a machine that will do 20 acres a day, in 10 days you can do 200 acres. With the asparagus harvester if you have a machine that will do 20 acres a day, that’s it! That is all it will ever do.

So if you have a large operation you will need many machines. These baby’s aren’t cheap either… mine will sell for $125,000 each.

Another problem with a selective asparagus harvester is the percentage of the crop that the machine will successfully harvest. The spears all have to be at least 9 inches long, straight, with no hooks, bruises, scrapes, or other damage, and have nice tight bracts. The machine can only cut the ripe ones, the ones over 9 inches long. It must leave the shorter ones that will be ready for harvest the next day or two.

At this point no one has ever sustained to my knowledge even 70 percent recovery. It’s a tough crop to harvest. The asparagus is tender and easily damaged and tends to grow in little clumps which makes it hard to cut a ripe spear without damaging a shorter one next to it.

The stuff grows like a weed too. If you miss a day of harvest due to a machine breakdown you are in deep trouble. The next day the spears you should have harvested will be too long and most will not be marketable. You typically have to hire a crew to go in and cut down all the tall spears. A machine might take a couple of passes if the ripe spear density is too high for the machine to handle.

Anyway, what it boils down to is that to make the machine economically viable you simply need to run it as much as possible. Run it 24 hours a day. The single biggest influence on the cost of harvesting the asparagus with a machine is the labor of the driver and sorter. The second largest expense is paying for the machine.

Because the labor is the most expensive aspect even with machine harvesting, one would want to have the machine do as many acres a day as possible. If you are already running the machine 24 hours a day then you have two more options… make the machine go faster and either make the rows further apart or harvest more rows at once.

That doesn’t do a lot for the small grower. If you run the machine 24 hours a day, you have 48” row spacings, and you harvest at 2 miles per hour, then the machine will do about 75 acres a day.

I decided to take a good long look at my design and really try to get the price down as low as possible and see what I could do to increase the harvesting speed. I also decided not to even offer 1, 2, or 3 row harvesters for sale. They just don’t make economic sense.

So I’ve re-designed the machine with an eye toward increasing the harvesting speed and getting the cost down. I’ve spruced up the website. Now I will sit and wait for a nibble. It’s kind of like fishing. I’ve had lots of nibbles, and one solid bite, but the hook came out and I lost that one. So I have improved the bait.

If my plans turn out, a selective asparagus harvester will revolutionize the asparagus industry the way the tomato harvester changed the tomato industry. It will just take one customer making a profit to open the floodgates. There just aren’t that many asparagus growers on the planet. Word will get out quickly.

My moto: No Spear Left Behind!