Experimenting can be one of the most pleasing aspects of the invention process: the feeling of achievement is significant and the exhilaration of creating something which works is comparable to that of artistic expression or writing a book.
The Independent MindsetIndependent inventors are in a better position than product developers within companies in this respect, since the freedom of decision-making and ability to expand or alter the scope of the project are much greater when your only boss is yourself.
Large companies’ R & D departments may have access to better facilities, and more money to spend on prototyping, but they very rarely have the sanction to try radical ideas, or to ‘rip it up and start again’ if a project is not going as hoped, or if some new inspiration has the potential to lead the project down a different course. It’s fascinating to compare corporate innovation, and the effects of ‘path dependency’ (“We must keep going with this even if something better is possible: look how much we’ve spent so far on it”), with the freedom an independent inventor enjoys, and to see what can be achieved when the constraints of a corporate mindset are removed.
Nevertheless, the main constraints on experimentation as an independent inventor are money (hence lack of facilities) and time (generally because most inventors work full-time during the day and do their inventing in spare time: evenings, weekends). The result is that experimentation is usually done using fairly basic equipment and off-the-shelf or home-made components, which, while often more than satisfactory for proving the principle of the invention, can appear amateurish when presenting the invention to potential investors or manufacturers — which is why, once you are through the stage of experimenting, learning how to present your invention is so important.
What You’ll Need to ExperimentThe type of experimentation you need to do will depend very much on what sort of invention you are developing. If your invention is electrical, you’ll benefit greatly from a digital multimeter. Once expensive, these are now available for under £10 from discount hardware stores. Breadboards for testing-out circuits are the best way to start (around £5 each); kits for producing your own printed circuit boards, using copper-coated fibreglass boards and etch-resist pens, are around £20. You’ll also need a soldering iron (a small tip helps the novice to be more accurate) and solder. The above are all available from catalogues such as RS, Farnell or Maplin, and from Maplin’s retail stores around the country.
For mechanical inventions, or those involving constructing a cabinet or frame, a work bench with a vice and G-clamps, hacksaws and coping saws, a power drill and bits, some small files, sandpaper, screwdrivers, ruler, set square and an assortment of nuts, washers and bolts or machine screws, are a good starting point. All of this is attainable for £75 or so from a good DIY store; although the quality of the tools will not be great, you are not going to need much more initially.
Multitools such as the Dremel (or cheaper competitors) are versatile, but not essential. Do not forget safety goggles, either; buy at least two pairs so that a friend or assistant need not be put at risk. The vice may well be expensive new: try a car boot sale for this, as sellers will often accept a lower offer just to avoid having to lift it back in the car again.
Materials such as MDF, tinplate, steel or aluminium bar or tube, sheet acrylic and so on can prove more expensive, mainly because they are difficult to buy in small quantities. In many cases, it is worth looking in skips for discarded items: once cleaned and repainted, steel tubing from an old bicycle frame is just as good as new stock, and components such as bearings and brackets can be a welcome bonus.
If your invention is larger, you may need to consider welding. An electric arc-welder can be hired for around £30 per half-day from many plant hire shops; if your welding needs are occasional, this may be better than spending hundreds of pounds buying the equipment.