Mercedes-Benz C111 Prototype / Mercedes-Benz F...

Innovators, whether part of a large organization or simply an individual inventor, are struggling with two things right now as they travel on their innovation journey — time and money.

As I recently said in my weekly newspaper column, many have created more than enough ideas to move forward, but have a hard time getting support and/or resources behind their ideas to actually advance them through to commercial successes. One way to help generate excitement for an idea is to make it a reality with a prototype.

Often when we help inventors advance their ideas and get an invention ready for the marketplace, we relate it to connecting an electrical circuit with multiple components, connected in the right order, allowing the energy to flow and do useful work. The energy of innovation requires what we call “completing the Circuit of Innovation.” This includes both a market roadmap, a holistic intellectual asset strategy that goes beyond simply getting a patent, and constructing prototypes to demonstrate how the invention comes to life.

Over the years, the need to quickly and inexpensively create prototypes has grown significantly, especially for true ground-breaking innovation. It is hard to influence leaders, key stakeholders and investors about a disruptive idea if it cannot be seen, touched or felt.

We have resources like the Fab Lab right here at Fox Valley Technical College Campus to help with this challenge. Fab Lab is an abbreviation for a fabrication laboratory and is home to readily available industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools. The lab can be used to help advance an inventor’s early stage prototyping for product innovation and development by allowing them to more easily design, fabricate and test prototypes of their inventions without investing unnecessarily is expensive specialized equipment.

There are also other ways to rapidly prototype inventions using new techniques and systems. For example, a scale model of a part or assembly can be virtually constructed using 3D computer-aided design. It is even possible to take this design from the virtual world into the physical one using 3D printing technology. Even overnight, these technologies can sometimes produce prototypes that have production-quality working parts.

Another disruptive method for modeling being explored is called “smart sand.” This rapid prototyping tool has been developed by the Distributed Robotics Laboratory at MIT’s Computer Science department. An object is immersed in a special group of small, sand-size particles. These tiny cubes relay location information to each other of how they are connected to the surface of the submerged object. From this data, a map of the topology of the object can be created and the object can then be replicated. This is still a rudimentary and developing technology, but with improvements and smaller particle size the technique might one day yield an inexpensive in-house object modeling solution.

Regardless, if you want to save time and money, and generate enthusiasm, go beyond just descriptions and business plans. Computer design and rapid prototyping should be a necessary part of your innovation arsenal. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t have the capability or expertise in-house — there are many outside resources that are readily available.

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