Trying Times

It’s expensive, incredibly time-consuming and, by all accounts, very frustrating. After speaking to designers and clients about their attempts to get new ideas into production, it’s easy to see why James Dyson did it himself. David Good has spent the past 12 years trying to get his design for adjustable stabilisers into mass production, while Mark Sheahan has spent five years trying to launch his easy-open closure system for packaging. Both have invested considerable sums – well into the thousands – on research, development and patents to protect their designs.

“It’s one thing having a good idea, but bringing it to the market is completely different,” says Lee Markwick, managing director of trading desk supplier Technology Desking. He has been working with product design consultancy Factory over the past 18 months on designs for a flytrap, and has so far spent around £6000 of his own money developing and protecting the idea. “It’s difficult, frustrating, expensive, time-consuming, worrying and uncertain,” Markwick sums up, but he hasn’t quite let that put him off pursuing his idea.

According to Adam White, a director at Factory, designers are typically faced with the problem that manufacturers don’t want to take risks. “People are always anxious about investing in anything other than property in this country. What’s sad for designers in the UK is it’s a fantastic spawning ground for ideas, yet they are largely put into production in other parts of the world,” he says. While he acknowledges that some designers do successfully get involved in marketing and manufacturing, he doesn’t believe it’s part of a “designer’s mission” to get involved in manufacturing. “What we need is a bit of faith – a culture of long-term development rather than short term,” he adds.

Finding manufacturers willing to take the plunge is one part of the jigsaw. Markwick points out it’s confusing to know where to go or who to approach with an idea in the first place. He says he never even knew there were patent solicitors until he had to apply for a patent. And having spent out on a patent, he adds, there is still the worry that someone may break it anyway. Good has spent more than £50 000 securing international patents for his stabilisers and is also concerned that his design will be copied once the patents run out.

Being protective of an idea is understandable, given such a climate. But Matthew Lievesley, design manager at the Centre for Industrial Design attached to the University of Northumberland, says he has seen plenty of “mad inventor types” who are “too precious”. They approach the centre with good ideas but “don’t have the money or aren’t sure about how to put a business plan together without giving away the idea”. He believes the amount people are prepared to invest is usually a good indicator of how successful the end result is.

The centre operates as a commercial product design consultancy and Lievesley estimates that three out of every ten projects don’t make it. But he adds in money terms, those projects only account for 10 per cent of what’s spent overall on development. “If they only have a tiny budget they’re not as committed as clients spending £10 000 and over,” he says.

However sophisticated a designer or client’s business skills may be, without a definite market there is no point in pushing an idea, claims Steve May-Russell, managing director of product design group Small Fry. “You have to do your homework. Identify the right product and establish that there is a marketplace before you go ahead,” he advises.

Although the group tends not to get involved with speculative projects, May-Russell does recall some development work carried out for a client in the early Nineties which specialised in ideas for sports equipment. A brainstorming session resulted in a suggestion to put flashing lights in training shoes. The idea was rejected in the UK – but taken up in the US, and to date something like 60 million pairs of flashing light trainers have been sold. Small Fry was paid for the original development work, but the consultancy hasn’t profited from any royalties.

Like Lievesley, May-Russell believes designers and clients who come up with ideas can get carried away. “There can be a lack of understanding of what the market is about and over expectations of the value of what they’ve got. There is also a tendency to disregard the commercial aspect – what the capital outlay and return will be. So many people get excited about what they’ve got, then discover the tooling costs are tens of thousands of pounds,” he adds. Lievesley advises developing ideas before applying for patents because the process is so expensive. He also believes the situation would improve if those within industry had more understanding of design.

As the following case studies highlight, even those who have researched their ideas and have established a clear market for their product can still experience an arduous journey in attempting to see their creations realised. Cost is a prohibitive factor – both in terms of protection and production. Patents may need to be taken out for global markets, while UK manufacturers face stiff competition from manufacturers abroad. But a firm belief in their products is the overriding driving force, and, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Trevor Baylis, inventor of the award-winning wind up radio, knows only too well how hard it can be to see ideas turn into products. According to Markwick, who consulted Baylis about his fly trap idea, Baylis is working with the Government to set up a new academy for inventors which should provide some much needed advice and help for anyone hoping to get their idea into production.

Easy-open

For many designers, their mission is to create things which enhance and improve. Mark Sheahan, director of Plasgen Designs, believes he has hit the nail on the head with his design for a new type of packaging opening action. The problem is, five years after coming up with the idea, he is still struggling to produce it. “It’s very frustrating to be told it’s too innovative or before its time. I can understand why the manufacturing industry is so poor here – people just don’t seem to want to take a chance,” says Sheahan.

But he remains as determined as ever to promote his design which works by squeezing the lid to open a container. The design makes containers easy to open with one hand and is also suitable for people with a weak grip. So far the idea has won Sheahan a best innovation award from the Package Business Convention and it has passed the owl mark test from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Applied Gerontology. It is also being considered as a Millennium Product.

“It feels as though I’ve always got one arm tied behind my back,” says Sheahan, who is in talks with a number of organisations about taking the design further. Manufacturer Betts has a non-exclusive licence in the UK (and licences abroad), but Sheahan says he is still looking for a major client to get the ball rolling, and would also like to sell other licences in the UK.

The cost so far has been considerable for Sheahan. “I’ve put everything into it. I’ve even slept on a factory floor because I had no real income at one point. What’s frustrating is having to wait so long. People think you’re mad unless you hit the jackpot,” he says.

Although Sheahan can understand the reluctance of manufacturers to take risks, he believes they are missing out on the potential of designs such as his by not sticking their necks out.

Flytrap

When Adam White, a director at product design consultancy Factory, first set eyes upon the mechanical flytrap his client Lee Markwick had discovered, it reminded him of something from a junk shop in the film Gremlins. The wood, mesh and brass contraption has now been redesigned by Factory into a domestic product for the new millennium and is waiting for a suitable manufacturer to take the bait.

But so far Markwick has found the experience arduous to say the least, and he’s reached a point where he’s not sure whether he wants to commit himself further financially. Although he has great faith in the product, he laments the cost, time and uncertainty involved.

He first discovered the idea from a window blind saleswoman who was measuring his conservatory when Markwick complained about flies. She mentioned a flytrap stored in her loft which had belonged to her grandfather, and brought it round to show Markwick, who was so impressed he commissioned Factory to work on a contemporary version. The original patent had been taken out in the Twenties, and Markwick is in the process of applying for an international patent for the latest version.

Initial talks with a chemicals manufacturer fell through, but Markwick is pressing ahead with trials of the flytrap at a UK university before approaching other manufacturers. He has already tested the trap in his conservatory where he let 30 flies loose – and he claims it works. “I’m cautious because it’s easy to get ripped off – there are people out there who break patents. I’m hoping to find the right relationship with a manufacturer,” he says.

Stabilisers

David Good has spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to launch his design for adjustable stabilisers to help children learn to ride bikes. There is no question that the idea is a good one – it has made it on to the Millennium Products list. And Good has done his research, so he knows there is a market for the product. What is proving difficult is getting the product produced by bicycle manufacturers and exploiting its international potential.

So far Good, who is a trained civil engineer and has worked as a designer for more than 30 years, has spent around £47,000 patenting his product in the UK and abroad.

“I’ve spent 30-plus years designing things and am used to applying logic to the marketing side. I’m not a crack pot inventor,” he stresses. Yet he has found the experience of trying to get his product off the ground “horrendous”. He adds, “You’ve got to be incredibly determined to get your ideas through.”

What began as a challenge to help one of his sons, who suffers from cerebral palsy, learn to ride a bike has developed into an exciting product with adjustable wheels, which benefits any child with balance problems, as well as children who are physically adept. The stabilisers aid the process of learning to balance by incorporating three extra inward-moved wheel positions. Good took early retirement to set up his own consultancy and has since been developing his balance trainers concept into products for able-bodied children and the disabled. Despite paying out for prototypes and carrying out his own consumer research, his idea was rejected by a manufacturer which makes stabilisers for the UK market. He has succeeded in selling a licence to a UK manufacturer to produce his balance trainer product, but is still looking for a major manufacturer – possibly one based abroad – to market the product to its full potential.

He also produces stabilisers for the disabled himself by sub-contracting to several small manufacturers, and is continuing to develop other related products. “Getting patents has been immensely expensive,” adds Good, who luckily received a £25,000 grant towards the cost from the Welsh Development Agency. What’s infuriating for Good is he knows his design helps children who have balance problems. So far his products have benefited hundreds of children and he says, despite the frustrations, it has also proved “very rewarding”, particularly when hearing of a boy who couldn’t walk until he was four, but succeeded in learning to ride a bike.

“I’m so convinced by the idea that even if I fail to make a commercial success once the patents lapse people will take it up,” says Good.

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