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March 04, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Ben Nibali kicks-off TNInventcon with primer on product development

TNInventconBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

It had been a decade since the Tennessee Inventors Association (TIA) last held a conference like it did on Saturday, according to A. J. Beal, a long-time member of the organization and its current Vice President.

On a crisp but sunny morning, a small but hearty group of people came to the Blount County Public Library to show their ideas, network with fellow inventors, and attend four educational sessions. The event was TNInventcon, a joint effort of TIA and the Library.

Ben Nibali, Founder and President of APTUS DesignWorks in Alcoa, kicked-off the workshops with a primer on product development for inventors. We profiled his small firm in this two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2) that published almost three years ago.

“Product development for inventors is very different from product development for a company,” Nibali said at the start of his presentation. “Inventors are spending their own money . . . (so the) economics are very different.”

Using a 27-block matrix, he described the three phases of product development – invention, creation, and execution. They form the X axis, and each category, in turn, has three subsets. They are: (1) discovery, mockup, and specification for invention; (2) design, prototype, and document for creation; and (3) sourcing, production launch, and production for execution. The Y axis is comprised of intellectual property (IP), physical, and business and marketing.

After explaining the matrix in some detail, Nibali described how inventors can use it as a decision-making tool to “make good choices about what to tackle. If I can make good choices about what not to do, I can save money.”

How does an inventor make those determinations?

“Making those decisions is very tied to your business plan,” Nibali said. Is it to develop a prototype? Is it to just secure a patent and sell or license the IP, or is it to manufacturer the product or have a contract manufacturer do so? Blocks (i.e., steps) can be eliminated based on the inventor’s ultimate goal.

Nibali also provided the attendees with two valuable tools.

  • One was a list of mostly local resources that he said have proven to be valuable in helping inventors in areas like patent law, design and engineering, product innovation and design, sales and communications, and contract manufacturing.
  • The other was a listing of fairly inexpensive tools to help with various aspects of the process. They ranged from 3D CAD software like Sketchup and Fusion 360 to inexpensive 3D printers for rough prototypes, the blog site as an information resource, Google Patents which Nibali sais is “way easier (to use) than the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site,” and any of the several crowdfunding sites which he said was “a great way of drumming-up business.”

Nibali also emphasized the importance of documentation. “If you have created something but have documented it (with drawings and 3D models), you most likely cannot reproduce it,” he said.

In the end, the Clemson University graduate and former Product Engineering Manager at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee, Inc. said the decision-making about how far to go on the product development continuum boils down to whether an individual is an inventor or an entrepreneur.

“Think about it as the difference between having fun and betting into business,” Nibali said.

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