When people say "inventor," pioneers like Edison or Bell invariably come to mind. But invention and innovation are around us every day, producing products that change and improve the way we live. The modern day equivalent of the Wright Brothers exist through the likes of Elon Musk and Larry Page. While the internal combustion engine was all the rage a century ago, 2008 gave us a peek at the first mass-produced highway-capable all-electric vehicle.
In other words, innovation never stops.
But the process of moving from concept to commercialization is vastly different today than the path taken by legendary entrepreneurs like Henry Ford. Today's inventors benefit from a digital economy that offers tools their predecessors simply did not have. These tools serve to reduce the time, cost and risk of commercializing a new product. Additionally, they can increase collaboration and improve the overall chance for product success.
Modern inventors are not free from challenges, however, with 50 percent of new businesses failing within five years. But, despite these risks and complications, three game-changing improvements in the concept-to-commercialization process have given today's inventors a clearer path to success than Mr. Ford ever had.
Scratch Paper vs. 3D Design Tools
The Ford Motor Company "parts drawing collection" consists of more than 1 million automotive part and assembly drawings between the years of 1903 and 1957. This original collection is stored on microfiche today; each drawing includes information on production release dates, design changes, reasons for the change, models where the parts were used, and more. For each change to a Model T, Ford and his team would create a new drawing, develop a physical part, test it, and see if it worked. If it didn't work as planned, they literally went "back to the drawing board."
With the digital tools we have now, modern inventors can create, revise, test, and collaborate on digital drawings at a rate Ford never imagined in 1903. Now, free or low-cost modeling software is available, opening the door for designers of all experience levels and removing an early obstacle in the product development process.
Whether a user is a professional designer or an up-and-coming maker, design software provides access to advanced product development tools that help eliminate some of the time, cost, and risk out of creation. This serves as a catalyst in moving ideas from paper to a 3D CAD model quickly. Today's inventors can use this software and receive valuable design feedback very early in the development process.
Makerspaces, Incubators, Accelerators and Crowdfunding
Outside of collaborative design tools, today's modern inventors have many support communities to turn to that give their products a fighting chance at success, such as mentorship, manufacturing tools, professional feedback, funding and more.
Makerspaces offer a physical place for groups to work on projects, connect with peers, and access early-stage development process resources, like laser cutters and consumer-grade 3D printers. The proliferation of makerspaces shows the advantage that collaboration and access to technology can bring to a new idea or product. There are 14 times as many makerspaces operating today than there were just 10 years ago.
Incubators and accelerators also provide a co-working space for startups, but offer a more formal path to market, complete with mentorship and industry connections. Competition to get into these programs is stiff and applications require a detailed business plan, so it's necessary to be further along in the product development process when considering this path.
There's also online crowdfunding sites that enable startups to tap potential customers. Kickstarter and Indiegogo, for example, give entrepreneurs a means to obtain proof of concept and market validation. If a campaign is successful, it's solid proof that there is an appetite for the product. Additionally, the teams behind fully funded campaigns can use these financial resources to complete the product, bringing it to an eager market.
All of these resources that Ford never had are suddenly critical to the process, giving concepts the boost they need to advance beyond product development.
Manufacturing in the Digital Age
A lack of viable and affordable manufacturing access often signaled the end of the road for inventors in Ford's time. Few could afford to invest in their own equipment and manufacturing service providers didn't yet exist.
But in our digital age, on-demand, contract service providers offer advanced manufacturing services without a large investment. No equipment to buy; no high-volume contracts to sign. This means that everyone--from a professional designer to solo entrepreneur--can obtain quality, industrial-grade parts to make prototypes or even to complete an initial production run--quickly.
If you're envisioning Ford-era metal tooling and men in dusty overalls, stop. Modern-day machine shops are increasingly automated and software-driven. Whether a designer or engineer needs fully functional 3D printed prototypes or an on-demand run of injection-molded parts for market testing, digital manufacturing companies are programmed for modern inventors. Some suppliers even have a 24 hour turnaround time so you can get parts and launch a Kickstarter campaign within weeks.
Remember Ford's 1 million part drawings, each with its own record of changes made? It's a thing of the past.
In a digital environment, you can get near real-time design for manufacturability (DFM) feedback on CAD models, and make improvements before production is even started. Not only will this improve the success rate of your product, but inventors can optimize designs, save time and money during the prototyping phase, and focus on getting a finalized product to market.
The Next Generation of Innovation
Through the fusion of automation software and interconnected manufacturing hardware, parts can be designed and produced more efficiently and cost effectively, which accelerates the development, testing, and commercialization of new products. A process that might have taken months--or years--to complete in the past can now be done much faster, and a new generation of innovation can realize its full potential.
Innovation and invention are alive and well. And, I think Mr. Ford would be proud of how far we've come.