Inventors and inventions are the lifeblood of industry, and yet the obstacles that confront an inventor in attempting to get a new product on the market are formidable. This, of course, is not accidental, for it is in the hurly-burly of the marketplace that the worth of new ideas is tested. The old saying that ‘if you invent a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door’ is a manifest untruth. The Patent Office is filled with thousands of good ideas that never made it to the marketplace (along with thousands of really terrible ideas) simply because those inventors never pressed forward with their ideas after receiving a patent. We see many inventors who come to us because their inventions involve molded plastics. These inventors come in all stages and sorts, from the person with only an idea and a few paper sketches to the fully evolved design with Solidworks prints and beautifully made, expensive models. All of these share similar needs, however, and most have similar questions, so here are a few of the FAQ and answers. If you are an inventor, doubtless you will have other, more specific questions, and for these you may contact us directly by e-mail, snail mail or phone.
How can you, an individual inventor, protect your invention from being ‘ripped off’ by someone else or by some company? And how can you protect yourself while explaining your idea to the company that you hope will manufacture your invention?
The ultimate protection, of course, is the status of ‘patent pending’. Note that I did not say ‘patented’. A patent protects a very specific device or process, set forth in the patent claims. Once the patent is granted, someone wishing to make a similar device or process can look at the patent claims and ‘work around’ those claims to avoid infringing the patent. During the patent application process (patent pending), the application is kept secret, and a potential infringer is left in doubt as to what the extent or strength of the issued patent will be. Few persons are willing to risk tens of thousands of dollars in tooling, advertising, marketing and production of an item that might result in lawsuits, penalties and royalties being paid to another. This means that the very best time to begin production on a new item is during the ‘patent pending’ phase. Of course, the run-up to production, the time when final designs, engineering and tooling are produced occupy a significant time all by themselves, hence it is well that the manufacturer-to-be is consulted from the beginning, often before the actual patent application process is begun.
In order to protect the inventor’s interests, a Letter of Confidentiality, Non-Disclosure or a Confidentiality Agreement may be signed by both inventor and manufacturer. You can go here to obtain a non-disclosure agreement. Your manufacturer should be glad to sign this type of agreement prior to your disclosing to him anything about your idea.
No reputable molding company charges for quotations on parts or molds. These are provided free of charge, without obligation. Quotes are generally supplied within a week, and are good for 120 days, after which they will be re-quoted. This time period is placed on quotes because of the volatility of material prices. Plastics are mostly petrochemical products – for a quick idea, look at gasoline prices; a pound of common engineering grade plastics generally equals the price of a gallon of gas!
Virtually nobody decides to come to market with a new product and says “well, no hurry, take as long as you like”! Time is often of the essence when entering a new market. It seems that when a new idea comes up, suddenly lots of people have the same idea. This phenomonon is often referred to as ‘steam engine time’: when the steam engine was invented, no less than seven independent inventors invented different versions of the steam engine within an eighteen month span of time!
If there is little engineering to be done molds may be made rather rapidly – sometimes in the matter if a couple of weeks for simple items. Most often, however, the design and engineering, plus the actual cutting of the metal for production tools takes a matter of several months, with some complex multi-part products taking up to half a year.
Always be aware of the “oh, my gosh” syndrome. Very frequently the first time a completed product is at hand someone will say: “Oh, my gosh, why didn’t we do so-and-so?” There is something about holding a complete product in hand that seems to trigger the inventive instinct to improve on it. Isn’t that what inventors do, after all? This can range from minor improvements (engraving a website or phone number is a favorite) to major changes, and these all add to the time (and expense) to bring the product to market.