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The Inventor and the Engineer: Hare and the Tortoise

 An interesting article in the New York Times caught my eye the other day, suggesting that the current ‘Gadget’ bubble may be deflating, if not actually bursting. Not good news for New Year ‘Start-Ups’. Can Engineers or Professional Makers turn an Inventor’s dream into a successful product?

Marty the Robot

A Lesson in Recent History

There may be parallels with the infamous Dotcom boom and bust of twenty years ago. Back then, retailing websites appeared at a ferocious rate promising a whole new shopping experience of the type we take for granted today. It was so easy: all you needed was a PC and an Internet connection, right? Companies with physical assets consisting of no more than a two people, a PC and a shed were valued by the stock market in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Fortunes were made by selling out just before the bubble burst: most investors lost. When the smoke cleared, a few players like Amazon were left standing.

What went wrong? Fairly obvious really; those not blinded by the technology or who had previous experience in the retail/distribution business saw that you still needed actual products, somewhere to store them before sale and a means of delivering them to the customer. What happened next was that many of the ‘old-fashioned’ established wholesale and retail companies realised they had that infrastructure and just needed to get themselves a website and some eCommerce software. Those Dotcom start-ups found out that the real world requires good old-fashioned hardware, in this case distribution infrastructure, to go with their software. An established brand and customer-base helps too.

Crowdfunding replaces the bank loan

Electronic gadgets are not a recent phenomenon; the earliest going back to the 1970’s with the invention of the pocket calculator and the first microprocessor – the Intel 4-bit 4004. For a while calculators remained the only gadgets on the consumer market until the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) appeared. Little more than a portable database, the PDA set the stage for the later Internet-connected versions and finally the Smartphone. Now, thanks to crowdfunding introduced by Kickstarter, start-ups are popping up all over the place having secured the capital necessary to turn a design concept into the next ‘must-have’ gadget. Of course, crowdfunding may provide capital and initial customers, but not a guarantee of ultimate financial success – especially if development of complex electronic hardware is involved. Check out this cautionary blog (and the reader comments) from Andreas Olofsson of Adapteva concerning the Parallella supercomputer.

In this Elektor video, the founder of LabNation tells you what happened to the $300,000 earned by his company on Kickstarter. Both made excellent products, but neither became multi-millionaires overnight!

Déjà vu all over again

The Times article suggests another Dotcom-type shakedown is now underway. After the meteoric rise of start-up companies making 3D printers, Fitness Bands and Smart watches along with other manifestations of the Internet of Things, are we looking at an equally rapid (and more technically accurate) meteoric fall in fortunes?

These enterprises are often started by Inventors, Hackers and Makers: the Hares in the title of this blog. They come up with the ideas for products, rushing to assemble a working prototype and quickly turn it into a saleable item. The thing is, hastily-built breadboard hardware, just like back-of-cigarette-packet software seldom translates directly to a customer-satisfying product. Just as Hares find it impossible to behave like Tortoises, Inventors find it difficult to cope with the methodical, detail-intensive work of the Development Engineer seeking to convert a bright idea into a product fit for sale. The big electronics companies employ Development Engineers: successful start-ups will have Professional Makers. Same technical knowledge and experience – different name. Unfortunately, it looks like similar mistakes to those that deflated the original Dotcom bubble are being made again, at least in the UK, due to the now-recognised ‘Skill Shortage’ in science and engineering.

Once again it may be the old lumbering giants who survive because they have the resources to make cheaper and/or superior versions of these products and blow the original inventors out of the market. The small matter of Intellectual Property (IP) is not an obstacle if you have enough cash: make the owner of the IP an offer they can’t refuse and Hey Presto! you’re the proud manufacturer of the Next Big Thing. It’s great for the owner of the start-up, not necessarily good for the customer as in this instance. If you have a novel idea for a product then the IP needs to be protected before someone else pinches it: inventor Trevor Baylis has a great website showing how to set about this essential task.

Makers and Customers

I’ve supported a number of hardware Kickstarter-type projects over the last few years and it’s fair to say that my experience has been patchy. In the UK at any rate, many enterprises seem to be of the One Person in Shed (or spare bedroom) variety. Sometimes they are professional engineers, more often hobbyists with a Big Idea. Most of the projects I supported were delivered, but too many in my view seemed to be initial ‘working’ prototypes taken straight to production, missing out the engineering prototype development stage. It’s perfectly understandable, for the reasons suggested in the examples above. The trouble is, you’ve now got to make hundreds of them and they all have to perform to specification and be reliable. Just how reliable the product needs to be depends on the target customer, and in the consumer gadget market, just plain dumb luck. Here are some target customer types with their likely expectations (and just a touch of cynicism):

  1. The Fashion Follower. A potentially huge number of sales can be made to this group who just want to have the latest ‘thing’. Advantage: few will actually switch the gadget on, let alone use it; many won’t even understand its purpose. Hence you can get away with indifferent design and insufficient development. Disadvantage: In order to reach these customers your gadget must go ‘viral’ on the Internet. No overt marketing or sales activity is involved and demand can increase exponentially in spite of delivery delays, design errors and other cock-ups. Risky, very risky, but pull it off and you’ve got it made.

  2. The Geek. Personally I hate this derogatory term for someone with a passion for things technical, who prefers to tinker with or program a gadget rather than just sitting on the sofa dribbling over a pizza and beer while watching the latest ‘box-set’ in one go. Advantage: Shares some of the characteristics of (1) above, but they will switch it on and try to make it do something. The essential difference between them and (3) below is that they will relish finding flaws and fixing them. They will seek to be trend-setters: connecting all their home entertainment equipment together, wiring the shed light to the Internet of Things, flushing the lavatory from their smartphone while on holiday…. Why? Who knows? Who cares? Make all documentation Open-Source and the Geeks will toil away fixing bugs and improving code for free. Who needs a Development Engineer! Disadvantage: Probably too few of them to generate enough sales. Risky, but it is possible to regard the Geek community as an unpaid R & D department. Just setup an on-line forum and let your customers do all that hard stuff.

  3. The High-Tech Consumer. This customer group is very large, may succumb to a good sales pitch for some high-tech gadget, but will expect it to work reliably and be simple to install as in ‘Plug and Play’. Like (2) they will see largely pointless technologies such as central heating control via the Internet and a robotic Personal Assistant to organise their music collection as absolutely essential for their Lifestyle. Advantage: Easy meat, lots of them and price is of secondary importance. Visit your local John Lewis store or Waitrose to see them in action. Disadvantage: High expectations for the product: not only will it need to work as stated, it must look the part and come in chic packaging. Probably won’t have to last more than a year because your next much-improved version will be out by then, right? Hard work (mostly in Marketing) but often worth it.

  4. The Industrial Customer. This market is potentially worth a fortune, but is the toughest to crack. Currently, factory owners are being subjected to heavy-duty marketing for Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things products. Delivery, installation, functionality, reliability and documentation will all need to be spot-on. If you’re dealing with a successful firm, their technical guys will be at least as savvy as yours and marketing bull will be spotted at once. For instance, if your gadget has not been tested and shown to work over the accepted industrial temperature range (-40 to +85°C) then it probably won’t even be considered. Advantage: Long-term, lucrative repeat-business on offer, but make a mess and Disadvantage: big customers will have fancy lawyers. Compliance with accepted standards such as IEC 61508 covering Functional Safety may be essential, so Development Engineers with industrial experience will be worth their weight in gold.

  5. Education (Teaching). In terms of product requirements, delivery, reliability, etc, this market is similar to (4) with the critical difference that few UK educational institutions, schools, colleges or universities, have any money to spend. No teachers or lecturers will have time to create any teaching materials either. Advantage: If you can get a product built into a teaching curriculum then yearly repeat orders are likely. Parallax’ US Board of Education robot (BoE-Bot) kits are an example. Disadvantage: Any device must be rugged and heavily protected from electrical abuse, preferably to military standards if it is to survive just one year of undergraduate lab classes. Either that, or so cheap that heavy losses can be tolerated. Oddly, I’ve found from experience building interactive museum displays that the reverse is true for the sub-teenage group: eight year olds will regard anything obviously rugged (built with 6mm steel plate) as a challenge and destroy it in the course of one day. Flimsy plastic keyboard and mouse? Nah, too easy.

  6. Education (Research). Nope, no money here either. They will accept donations though or try and interest you in their crowdfunded project from the university’s spin-off company....

Marty the Robot

Here is one I backed earlier. Marty is an educational humanoid robot that was the subject of a crowdfunding campaign in 2016. The company concerned, Robotical, is a spin-off from the Robotics research group of Edinburgh university. Marty deserves to succeed as he’s been designed by professional engineers who have a background in robotics, and who have taken the trouble to involve their target ‘customers’ in the development process. Inevitably it is Raspberry Pi compatible, but when mine arrives it’ll get my FORTHdsPIC board strapped on and hopefully reviewed in a later blog post.

NEXT TIME: I’ll look at some of that nasty detail design stuff. Hardware design becomes a lot more complicated and time consuming once the ‘lash-up’ or early prototype has to evolve into a saleable product. First comes component tolerancing, then environmental (principally temperature) considerations and finally compliance with EMC and where applicable, Functional Safety standards. In the mean time: Make a Happy New Year!

If you're stuck for something to do, follow my posts on Twitter. I link to interesting new electronics components and development kits (some of them available from my employer!) and retweet posts I spot about robot, space exploration and other issues.

Engineer, PhD, lecturer, freelance technical writer, blogger & tweeter interested in robots, AI, planetary explorers and all things electronic. STEM ambassador. Designed, built and programmed my first microcomputer in 1976. Still learning, still building, still coding today.

11 Jan 2017, 8:29



January 30, 2017 10:25

Kickstarter and Indiegogo seem to bring out the stupid in a lot of people. The number of times a downright dumb idea hits target is astounding.

The Skarp laser razor was a recent such idiocy where a lot of hopefuls threw their money at a concept that was far from provable.

People should be more diligent when they participate in crowdfunding.

0 Votes
Bilal Ahmad

January 19, 2017 13:48

This is good work for everyone but the home innovator or individual can not get easily these benefits, sir how can I reach their for my two discoveries of Free Energy (Energy Harvesting) 1 Energy Harvesting from Earth
2 Energy Harvesting from RF of Mobile networks.
Will you please give me a good and easy suggestions.
Ahmed Bilal

0 Votes