Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Cost Effective Product Development. Alex Smith, Trig Creative. Leeds inventors group 16 – 11 – 11

After graduating with a degree in industrial design, Alex worked for a product design consultancy before taking a masters degree in design practice and starting his own company Trig Creative. He also lectures at Huddersfield and Leeds Met universities.
He has worked with limited companies, plcs and individuals (he estimates that around 25% of Trig’s work is for individuals and inventors). Trig can get involved in many aspects of product development – in some cases being involved from a very early stage right up to manufacture. In one instance Alex described how they had developed a product for tagging sheep. In order to understand the problem which the product was intended to overcome they went and had a go at tagging sheep. Innovation doesn’t have to be ground-breaking – just good ideas solving problems.

The first step in any project is a feasibility study, which involves research, competitor analysis and a patent search. This will give a clearer picture of how things are looking and around 50% of ideas can be rejected at this stage. The concept stage involves innovating in order to create a saleable product. Alex emphasised that an invention is not a product. It needs to be developed and issues such as attractiveness and sustainability need to be looked at. Product visualisations are produced from CAD data – obviously it’s helpful to see what the product may look like before it actually exists. Sometimes they have produced animations to show how a product will work.

Alex then went through some case studies of products which Trig have worked on. The award-winning table chocolate fountain which they designed for Giles & Posner included some innovated features which enabled a smoother flow of chocolate and a much easier means of cleaning the product. These features were patented.

The market which a product is aimed at can have a big influence on how it is developed. Alex described how their work on an amplifier which was a low volume / high end product gave them more flexibility in what they could do with it. It was designed so that no tooling was needed (a mass-market product is more likely to need tooling) and therefore costs in that area could be reduced. Generally the more complex the product, the more expensive the tooling and tooling costs can run into tens of thousands of pounds.

Alex then discussed patenting and timing in relation to product design. Sometimes people come to Trig after having already obtained a patent and the problem with this is that Trig can only do what is in the patent – there is little flexibility for improving the design. He feels that it is better to go to the designer with the broad idea and discuss it under a non-disclosure agreement before filing the patent. The designers may then come up with better ways of carrying out the invention which can be covered by a subsequent patent filing. He also stated his view that a patent is only as good as the money you’re going to spend on it. If you don’t have the money to spend on enforcing a patent it’s probably not worth spending thousands on obtaining a patent – even though an attorney can draft a very good patent.

A newly designed product needs testing – and retesting. It’s important to know that it will work – and not just once. Once you have a working prototype it’s easier to show to prospective manufacturers or buyers. Alex suggested setting up Facebook or Twitter pages to advertise the new product before it is available and ask for opinions. Feedback like this can be important in improving or tweaking the product before it goes to market.

Alex gave a breakdown of costs involved in Trig’s work on two different products – from the initial free consultation to the final tooling. One was a magnifier for an Iphone® case; the other a knitting device. It was a good illustration of likely costings at different stages.

Alex summed up his requirements for success:-
Have belief
Never stop researching. You can never do enough – whether it’s market research or patent searching etc.
Actively look for funding
Think carefully before filing a patent early.
(If you can’t patent the product, all is not lost).
Test, evolve and develop the product.
Decide whether to sell, licence or manufacture the product
Make sure you devote enough time and resources to marketing & sales. The product will not sell itself.