How to make your inventions a reality

As an ex-installer who became an inventor of various plumbing and heating products, I always remember my days on the tools searching for solutions to problems that I encountered on site and then discussing them over a cup of coffee at break time. Every installation is effectively a prototype and no two jobs are the same, so plumbing and heating installers are experts at solving problems and working under pressure. It is these fundamental problem-solving skills that set me on the way as an inventor.

There is an inventor in every installer

I would regularly question why the particular product that I was installing was missing some key features, or why it wasn’t making my job easier for me as the installer. However, as I was not immersed within the product development arena, I did not appreciate the scale of the task required to create a profitable product. It was a very steep learning curve when I embarked on this exciting but challenging journey, but I was determined to see it through to the end. One of the important issues that our industry faces today is the transition towards the decarbonisation of heat and the industry is already actively looking for solutions to challenges that we face. This is an area that is currently ripe for fresh thinking and innovation in developing and delivering products that enable the industry to move forward.

70% of new products fail to meet customer expectations

It is easy sometimes to focus on a problem that you have encountered once. But it’s important to ask yourself: is this really a problem that other installers are facing on a day-to-day basis? You may have thought of an idea for an amazing product that would have been perfect for your task, but you have to ask yourself several questions. Is it going to be a volume product? Will you spend forever trying to convince the market it needs to solve a problem it did not know it had? There are many other facets to understanding whether a product is viable, such as the best material to be used (plastic, metal etc); the most cost-effective manufacturing process (injection moulding, metal fabrication etc); and the cost of raw materials. However, one of the most important starting points is digging deep into the ‘value proposition’.

The value proposition

A value proposition is the promise of value to be delivered, communicated and acknowledged by the customer. It is also the belief of the customer in the value or benefit that they have received, experienced and acquired. The value proposition canvas (figure 1) can be used as an exercise to visualise a value proposition. It consists of two sides; the left-hand side of the diagram, which is the product or service to be created, and the right-hand side, which is the customer profile – in our industry the plumbing and heating installer. Even this requires being able to adapt your mindset from who is usually programmed in to be viewed as the customer.

A plumbing and heating installer’s job involves numerous different aspects and there are many potential areas for product design, such as a tool or new fitting that speeds up the job. In simple terms, once you have recognised the specific task that your customer is carrying out, then the idea is to list as many pains that they experience while carrying out that job and the gains that you believe they would like to make.

Engage with fellow installers

Once you have fully understood the customers’ profile, the next step is to list as many pain relievers and gain creators that you believe would solve the customers’ problem(s). From here you can start to ideate your product concepts.

Product development

Do you force your product down the throat of the customer by approaching from the left-hand side of figure 1 (the product), or attempt to understand the customers’ needs first and approach from the right-hand side (the problem). Common sense may tell you that it is better to understand the pains and gains of the customer and start from the right. The value proposition gives you the ability to illustrate and visualise in a group what value needs to be created.

The pipe slice that cut time

Plumbing and heating installers used to have problems cutting pipework in confined spaces. In 1984, Englishman S Garton invented a revolutionary item that we all still rely on today – the pipe slice (figure 2). Traditionally, pipework was cut with much larger pipe cutters, such as those invented in 1924 by an American, David Kilgour (figure 3). The pipe slice has definitely been of value to the plumber because it speeds up installation. Its unique self-engaging cutting feature means you don’t have to adjust the cutter to tighten the cutting wheel onto the pipe. While companies have attempted to further innovate and progress the original pipe slice invention (see figure 4, above), in my opinion, nothing has yet come close to having the same transformative impact.

Research, research and more research

One of the main reasons for the failure of a new product idea is a lack of market research carried out before too much time and money is invested into the idea. Are there any other products already on the market that are solving the same problem? What are the unique features that set your product apart from any other? Is there enough margin in the supply chain and where is the product going to be sold? Is your product infringing a competitor’s patent? What regulations do you need to comply with before the product is sold? This list is not exhaustive and you can never carry out too much research – although it is that entrepreneurial spark that tells you when something is right.

Protect your idea

One of the biggest mistakes made by budding inventors is not ensuring that the intellectual property they have created is fully protected. It is easy to become overexcited at the start, when you are anxious to share your idea with potential investors. However, you must be aware that once you have shared your idea to the public without a non-disclosure agreement, then it instantly loses its novelty and cannot be patented. Another important thing to ensure is that when you partner with an investor, you have a fair and valid licence agreement in place that clearly states the terms of your contract. There are many business models that you can employ, such as a licence to manufacture, or you can simply offer the investor shares in your business. One of the key elements of the contract is to ensure that you, as the inventor, receive a good return for your work creating the product. It is paramount that you seek the services of an independent lawyer to check the contract – do not rely on your investor’s lawyer, who will ultimately be fighting their corner.

Technology such as 3D CAD software, 3D printers and rapid prototyping capabilities mean there has never been a better time to create a new product. It is possible to have a fully functioning first prototype in your hands, from initial sketch to 3D printed model, on the same day. This is early in the development stage but it enables you to assess your design and receive invaluable feedback for your idea from day one.

CIPHE Plumber becomes inventor

Ty Harnett, Technical Director of Coolag (a CIPHE Industrial Associate), spent many hours on the tools trying to think of innovative solutions to the problems he faced. An issue that Ty highlighted was the challenges he faced when depth planning for wall-mounted shower fittings. During a CIPHE innovation workshop, Ty participated in a value proposition canvas exercise, demonstrated in figure 1, where we talked through the whole value proposition to arrive at some examples (figure 5).

One of the key features that enabled his product, the Alfie in-wall shower fixing kit, to overcome the challenges of depth planning was its unique ability to ensure a robust and accurate second fix installation. This is illustrated in figure 6, which shows a typical layout within a solid wall construction (left) and a stud wall construction (right) when depth planning during first fix. The kit also prevents pipe movement, reduces the risk of leaks and helps to ensure that the finished shower is level.

CIPHE supports innovation, compliance and professionalism

There are many challenges on the road to successfully bringing a new product to market, such as protecting your ideas through design registrations, trademarks and patents, and accessing investment. The CIPHE will be looking to run a workshop for members, explaining the opportunities and challenges surrounding product development and hopefully helping to reduce the risks involved in bringing your product to market. The workshop will include presentations and advice from experts including patent lawyers, investors, manufacturing engineers, material scientists and marketeers to help guide you on the path towards becoming a successful inventor.

This article first appeared in the Sep / Oct 2019 issue of P&H Engineering, the magazine for members of the CIPHE. Find out how to join here.

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