We all know the stereotype of the inventor: a quirky obsessive who spends all his (it’s usually a him) free time in the basement playing with dangerous objects and explosive chemicals and then spends too much of the rest of his time (usually losing multiple jobs along the way) trying to get companies, investors – anybody – to recognize his breakthroughs.
Inventing is a compulsion for these people, a deeply rooted part of their personalities, and usually, a lifelong pursuit.
Of course, stereotypes are made to be broken. But thanks to some recent developments, this one hasn’t just been broken, it’s been smashed to bits.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Collaboration replaces isolation
In the past, inventors were usually pretty lonely. They often feared collaborating because they worried that another inventor would steal their idea.
But what if you have a good idea but can’t finish it without help? Today, that help is easy to find. For example, research by my colleague Stephanie Overby turned up a guy named Richard Van As. In 2012, this South African carpenter lost four fingers in a circular saw accident. He went in search of a customized, fitted mechanical replacement for his digits and found none.
After watching a YouTube video of a mechanical hand prop designed by amateur mechanical engineer Ivan Owen in the U.S., Van As asked Owen if they could collaborate. Working via Skype and the Internet, the duo ultimately built a customized 3D-printed thermoplastic hand and fingers named the Robohand (published as open source with no patent).
Unlike existing products, the Robohand technology uses the motion of existing joints to mechanically move the custom made device without invasive surgery. The company now creates one-off mechanical fingers, hands, and arms for customers around the world at a cost of just $500 each.
2. No more going broke
Funding has always been a problem for inventors. There are many sad stories of failed inventors driving themselves and their families into bankruptcy in pursuit of the big breakthrough (that’s always just around the corner).
Today, there’s a way around that corner that doesn’t involve penury and divorce. In 2013, California engineer James Olander was looking for a way to work from his laptop minus back, neck, wrist, and hand pain. He designed the “Roost,” an ultra-portable device that transforms your laptop into a comfortable desktop workstation and produced a prototype using a laser cutter machine. Within a month, he raised nearly $200,000 on Kickstarter and connected with nearly 2.500 customers looking for such a product.
3. No skills required
Traditionally, inventors were almost always trained engineers (or had to find engineers willing to do the difficult work of actually making the idea take physical shape).
No more. Designer Anton Willis developed a folding kayak, based on the principals of origami, after a move into a small San Francisco apartment forced him to put his own fiberglass vessel into storage. TechShop, which offers training classes on everything from CNC machines to welding, gave Willis the knowledge, tools, and space (paying members gain access to 15,000-square foot shops that are chock full of design and manufacturing equipment) he needed to create more than 20 full-scale prototypes of the 25-pound kayak for user testing on bays, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Willis now sells his Oru Kayak boats and accessories online and continues to expand the product line.
Stephanie interviewed a bunch of experts about where the maker movement is going and how it will affect traditional businesses and their supply chains in the in-depth report The Make-for-Me Future.