Bring on the bright ideas!

Published on July 13th, 2012
Bring on the bright ideas!

How do people come up with smart ideas? And what can you do if you want to become the world’s next big inventor? We got first-hand advice from someone who spends every day creating new products…

Gunter Halfar has an awesome job. He’s like an inventor, a businessman and a project manager all rolled into one. Why? Because he’s the Country Technical Manager at 3M, which means that he gets to spend every day creating and introducing new products to the South African market. We managed to get some advice from him on turning a smart idea into an awesome invention, so listen up – it could change your life…

How do you develop a new product at 3M?
Step 1:
A customer comes to us with a problem and we think of a product that could solve it. So let’s say a car manufacturing plant has a problem in their spray-painting department, because the bumpers keep getting splattered with paint when the rest of the car is being sprayed. The solution would be a type of masking tape that will stick to (and block) the bumper during spray-painting, but then won’t leave a mark when you pull the tape off.

Step 2: We check if someone at 3M has already created the product somewhere else in the world. If they have and we think it’ll suit the SA market, then we’ll replicate the same product locally. If no one has created it or is busy developing it at 3M in the USA, then we’ll starting thinking about the idea and making sure that it’s something 3M wants to develop.

Step 3: We create a rough prototype (not a real model – just a picture or a concept) and figure out exactly how the product will work.

Step 4: We show the rough prototype to the customer to find out if they like it. If they do, then we register the product in America as a patent for 3M. When you’ve created something unique, you need to patent it to make sure that no one else can copy the product you’ve made. Ideally, you want to get a global patent as well as a local one.

Step 5: We make a real prototype and test it out in our factory. Then, when we’re happy with the product’s performance, we do a physical trial with the customer to see if we’ve created the solution they needed.

What advice can you give learners who want to turn an idea into an invention?
• First, you need to develop and research the idea very thoroughly.

• Then, take some time to think about where it could be used and who would use it.

• Once you have a very clear idea of what you’re making and how it would be used in the market, you can go ahead and make a basic prototype. It doesn’t have to be the real thing – you could make a scale model out of paper or wood, for example.

• Then it’s time to ask yourself, “Is this going to perform the way I want it to perform?” Test your product as much as you can, and try to test it out at home as much as possible – if you show it to too many people at this point, you might risk someone stealing your idea. If you do need to show your prototype to someone or ask them specifically about your idea, try to be a bit vague, or you could even ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

• Once you’re happy with your prototype, you can register a patent with the South African patent office. To find out more about how to do this, click here. And remember, a patent is only valid for a certain period of time (usually about 10 years), and it only protects the designer if they actually start doing something with their product. You can’t just sit with your idea and do nothing, because then someone could challenge your patent.

• Once your product is tested and patented, you need to think about marketing your product. Now is the time to work out who will make your product for you, where you’re going to store it and very importantly, who’s going to fund it. If you’re looking for funding, your best bet is to talk to an entrepreneur. Visit the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship to find out who you could speak to.

• Remember: A successful product isn’t always innovative or totally weird or way out. Sometimes, it’s something blatantly obvious that no one else happened to think of , but that fills a specific need.

What can the average person do to come up with a smart idea?
It’s all about observation. Observe the world around you and think about the way things are working (or aren’t working). Then you need to be able to say “what if” and consider how things could be changed or improved.

You need to be able to argue an idea in your mind, so you can work out if it’s worthwhile, That’s why the logical thinking skills you develop through Maths and Science at school can really help you succeed later in life.

Read everything you can, from the internet to magazines like HIP2B2 and Popular Mechanics. All the info that’s out there will stimulate your brain, spark new ideas and help you identify problems that need to be solved.

And finally, don’t give up. Most of the time, the first idea that pops into your head may seem totally ridiculous, but the more you think about it, the more likely you’ll be to come up with a great new idea.