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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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13 Part 2: 4 Preparing for innovation

Many inventors have said that having the idea for an invention is the easy part. This is often demonstrated by the frequency of examples of simultaneous invention. At one exhibition of inventions I attended there were three separate portable ladders to escape from fires, two systems for using rainwater to flush toilets, two types of portable vehicle wheel clamp, and two methods of reducing red-eye in flash photography. In most cases of technological innovation only one of the competing technologies goes on to achieve significant success. The challenge lies in the development of an inventive idea into a successful design and innovation – to complete the difficult journey from idea to market.

Once inventors seek to move beyond the stage of the prototype that demonstrates the feasibility of their invention they move into another territory. Manufacturing an invention on a large scale can involve a different set of problems from those involved in devising an invention and producing a prototype.

The prototype might not be sufficiently attractive to look at or easy to use to appeal to buyers. It might not be made of materials suitable for the manipulation required by a volume manufacturing process, or for the degree of safe and reliable performance required by a commercial innovation on sale to the public. Consequently development often involves the search for new materials or for new uses for existing materials, both of which can involve further invention. Further, existing technical methods might be inadequate for economic volume manufacture and a new machine or a new process might need to be invented.

Given the technical complexity and the level of investment required to manufacture most innovative products, it is necessary to be able to predict and control the manufacturing process precisely. Depending on the nature of the product, it may be that during the invention phase a mixture of empirical bench work and scientific investigation was used. Less technologically complex inventions are likely to have involved mostly an empirical, cut-and-try approach, with a scientific approach needed for more complex inventions. Either way when it comes to the precision required for large-scale manufacture there is an increasing need to understand how an invention works, or how a material behaves in a certain way under certain conditions, or how a particular manufacturing method is carried out, in order to be able to control the overall process. For this level of understanding a scientific input is usually invaluable, although craft skill and empirical know-how remain important even for leading-edge innovations.

Finally as well as the increasing precision of the manufacturing technology needed to progress from invention to innovation, development also calls for more careful consideration of the commercial aspects, market needs and sales potential – the likely costs of manufacture, size of market, sales price, selling strategy, profit margin, visual and functional design, and so on.