If at First You Don’t Succeed
Editor’s note: Spark is a regular feature that chronicles the product-development journey of three women inventor-entrepreneurs. We’re following the ups and downs of Diana York, Madeline Canfield and Julie Austin. Each is at a different point in their business. Although Spark celebrates women inventor-entrepreneurs, the learning lessons and insights will have universal appeal for all innovators.
A key step to developing a successful product is creating a prototype – sometimes many. Hands-on experience with an early-stage invention offers insight to a product’s strength and weakness, as well as its potential functionality.
Diana York started thinking about her Slow Cooker Mate’s design in 2005, when she wondered why Crock-Pots only cooked one meal at a time. York envisioned two separate inserts sitting on an elevated cooking rack, creating a tiered system to cook one entrée and two side dishes at once.
Her first prototype tested the basic function of her concept: Could food be cooked double-decker style? York enlisted the help of her husband to cut a metal circle out of the bottom of a baking pan. This served as the base to support inserts. She used metal strips as legs to elevate the scaffolding.
It worked – sort of.
“The meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans cooked perfectly,” she says. “Unfortunately (the food) ended up tasting metallic and we had to go back to square one.”*
York set out to remedy the metal aftertaste. “I knew the process was going to be a challenge,” she says. “But nothing prepared me for the next two years of resolving issues only to beget new ones.”
Retaining the metal rack, but abandoning metal pans, York hit on the idea of a two-piece, heat-resistant ceramic insert. She wanted to hire professionals to make this prototype. York eventually found a ceramics importer, who sourced an overseas manufacturer that only required a physical product representation and a $750 fee.
York bought artist clay to make her inserts. She soon confronted her next challenge.
“How would I create a design that allows users to remove a hot insert without burning their hands?”
Trying to keep all structural needs of the insert in mind – handles needed to be included in the design but also needed to fit under the lid of the existing slow cooker – York was finally able to create an acceptable clay prototype and sent it overseas.
A month later, York received a picture of the prototype. The handles weren’t quite right. “I had given them a sample of exactly what I wanted,” she says, “and they got it wrong.”
York had e-mailed the manufacturer several times about correcting the mistakes. She thought the manufacturer would fix them. “Three months later,” she says, “I received the exact same prototype that I had seen in the pictures.”**
York had to settle with her imperfect samples. She couldn’t use them as templates for mass production. But at least they were good for more proof-of-concept testing.
However, York still had the metal rack to contend with. She ultimately decided to eliminate it from the design, opting to make a one piece ceramic insert that would sit flush inside slow cookers.
Watching her budget reserves shrink, York decided to avoid overseas miscommunications and expensive mistakes. She pursued local potters with whom she could work to sketch designs and build prototypes. She felt hopeful … until her next obstacle surfaced. She learned potters spin clay rather than pressing clay into a mold, which was required for her product.
Almost a year had passed since launching her prototype process. York decided to return to making prototypes herself. This time she was armed with Play Doh, craft dough and a pasta machine to insure uniform thickness.
As luck would have it, the otherwise perfect prototype clay pan dried, shrank and cracked.***
After weeks of frustration, York had a moment of clarity: She realized she need not create the prototype first, but create a mold from which she could make a prototype.
“It came to me all at once,” says York. “I needed to create a damp clay mold which retains its shape, and pour in a liquid substance that could harden and be removed and then pressed into plaster of Paris.”
Ultimately York cracked the code. She filled the bottom of her slow cooker with sand to the level where she wanted the insert to lay. She used hot wax and Play Doh to make a mold, and used plaster to make the finished prototype.
Pieces of the plaster prototype had broken off when removed from the slow cooker and needed to be glued back on.
“The finished model was definitely not a piece of artwork,” she says. “But finally after two years, I was convinced I had a solid representation of what needed to be made.” ****
York found a new sourcing agent who shopped the prototype around for opinions and bids. Two months later, she received the prototype. One problem remained: no handles.
“My handles fell off somewhere over the Pacific Ocean,” she says, and never made it into the manufacturer’s design. “It was my fault.”
York launched her ceramic Slow Cooker Mate in December 2008, only to face another hurdle. Crock-Pots come in a variety of sizes. Her insert won’t fit every slow cooker. Stay tuned to discover how she handles this situation.
Scott Keeley, president of Rhode Island-based product-development firm Obvia, weighed in on York’s journey.
*About that first prototype:
Good choice in creating the crude, working prototype out of metal. We call this a “proof-of-concept” prototype. It’s not intended to look good, only to prove that the concept works.
Many clients come to us with product sketches and a list of desires and want us to create a prototype. A list of desires is not an invention, and may not comply with the laws of physics.
**About the miscue on the handles:
I think the manufacturer looked at her representation and decided that the inserts with the handles would be difficult to create and would have cost more than the initial $750.
Many foreign manufacturers do not like to say ‘No.’ Instead of communicating with York, they probably decided to avoid her and do what they thought they could do given their budget.
I’ve learned that what we expect in our own culture is not necessarily expected in another.
***On shopping locally:
Searching for local potters was the right idea. If York was looking for a model, even if it was not made from the intended final material, a potter or even a glass blower could have made a beautiful prototype. Making a visual representation is the most important step. Finding the final materials is relatively easy.
I’m impressed with her fortitude. But there are some things that could have made the process a little easier. To avoid sending a physical prototype, which is unnecessary these days, injecting technology can produce 3D images. These can be viewed by a client or prospective manufacturer in seconds. Once approved, a plastic replica can be produced by various processes through companies like www.quickparts.com.
3D imaging might have cost close to the $750 York initially spent, but would have been worth the investment because the plastic prototype would have been made exactly to her specifications avoiding any misunderstandings with the manufacturer.
To do it on the cheap, there are some inexpensive and even free software products. Check out www.software4free.org/3d.html. Yes, these take some time to learn and some are just for 3D illustrations and do not provide data to generate dimensioned parts.