Answers to product development questions during a year of heightened innovation

There is a trend for equipment manufacturers to make 3-in-1 machines that can 3D-print, laser cut, and CNC mill.


Although 2020 was a year to forget for many, the tragedy and upheaval of COVID-19 resulted in a great year for innovation. As more people use the pandemic to take the ideas that have been rolling around in their heads and finally make them real, I have heard a lot of great questions about the product development process.

Answers to some of the best product development questions of 2020:

How much does it cost and how long does it take to patent an idea?

Filing a patent is often a crucial part of inventors’ strategy, as it gives them the exclusive rights to the technology for many years. The cost and timeline for the two main types of patents in the United States—design and utility—are very different for each type.

Utility patents, which cover the core technology of the invention, are valid for 20 years from the date of filing if they were filed on or after June 8, 1995. Because utility patents cover the raw technology, timeline and cost to file can vary depending on the complexity of the concept. In broad strokes, it is about $2,500-10,000 including lawyer fees and takes approximately 2 years. The United States Patent and Trademark Office offers expedited service that can cut the time in half, albeit with additional fees.

Design patents cover only the aesthetic or ornamental aspects of a product, such as the body design of a Porsche. They are generally seen as weaker intellectual property and are valid for 15 years. The cost to file a design patent is about half that of a utility patent and takes about a year from application to filing.

It is strongly recommended to secure legal counsel to aid in the filing to ensure it is done correctly and to lock in the best protection for the technology.

What rapid prototyping equipment should I invest in for my home space?

It is a great help to have rapid prototyping (RP) equipment at home when developing prototypes. It helps speed up the process and can save valuable time and money on the parts for prototypes.

However, there are so many types and varied capabilities of RP technology that it can be overwhelming to choose one. Fortunately, there is a trend for equipment manufacturers to make 3-in-1 machines that can 3D-print, laser cut, and CNC mill. These machines use a motion base with detachable heads for each of the three functions and provide immense flexibility for the at-home inventor.

My favorite 3-in-1 is the Snapmaker. Its 1.0 model starts at $799 and has a working area of 125mm in each axis. The company recently launched its 2.0 lineup, which offers additional upgrades and larger bed size that will ship in 2021 starting at $1,199.

Snapmaker machines require minimal assembly and come with free software. They are the perfect size for desktop manufacturing.

Why are there minimum order quantities for manufacturing?

Minimum order quantity or MOQ is an industry term for the fewest amount of something that you are allowed to order from a manufacturer.

Any prototyper knows it can be extremely difficult to make one of anything. It takes time to design and vet the part and set up the machine to make it.

In manufacturing, it is equally difficult to make one or just a few of any one part. In order for the manufacturer to achieve its desired return on investment of time, space and capital to build your product, it requires a commitment from you to purchase a certain volume of that product.

MOQs vary from one to millions, depending on the part being made and the manufacturer’s capabilities. It is common for processes that do not require tooling, such as machining and 3D printing, to have low MOQs. In these cases, there are many shops that are happy with an MOQ of only one unit; the time and resource burn is fairly low with these technologies.

However, when you consider tooled processes such as injection molding, the MOQs usually start in the thousands. Molding processes require tools that need to be cut and verified, time needed on expensive machines that already have production schedules, and raw materials that need to be purchased in bulk—thus requiring a heavier purchase commitment.

Has COVID-19 changed how you approach the development process?

The pandemic has forced a re-think of how we developers do our jobs. Although the process for bringing ideas from concept to production has not changed, the execution has.

The biggest challenge has been how to maintain a collaborative process among team members while being forced to be physically apart for much of the week. It is important to have multiple eyes from both industrial designers and engineers throughout the process to ensure a design is executed properly and at a high level, so we have had to rethink our process to maximize live collaboration in a safe way.

Of course, video conferencing tools have helped share CAD and live video of prototypes, and we use WiFi development boards on our electronic projects to push data to online dashboards so engineers can see live data from remote locations. However, full virtual collaboration is not a holistic strategy when designing physical components. There is so much to learn from being able to touch and use prototypes that engineers have to be able to evaluate them in real life.

To facilitate this, we at Enventys Partners have a small core team that is in our shop most days. They build prototypes, set up equipment and remote workstations, and run the rapid prototyping equipment.

When parts are ready, they are shuttled to the homes of the project lead for evaluation. This allows the team to stay as remote as possible while maximizing facetime with the prototypes, so they can be evaluated in real life and validated in the right way to push innovation forward.