Researching solutions to the problem [Invention Cycle]

In the previous step of the invention cycle you learnt how to get beyond wishy-washy thoughts to listing the actual problem. Now, it’s time to find a solution… and see if that solution is really an invention you can patent. To do this we’re going to break this into two parts: researching a solution and a rough patent search. Ready to apply it to the problem you zeroed in on last week?

Throw off misconceptions

OK, first things first. Throw off any misconceptions and preconceptions you have about solving problems. You don’t need a special degree, you don’t need letters after your name, and you certainly don’t need a lot of money (though it helps). What you need is a good dose of curiosity, a determination to keep moving forward, a healthy dose of common sense, and the self-discipline it takes to see it through to the end. Knowledge and facts can be looked up, learnt, and applied; these character traits cannot be faked forever.

Got that? Good. Chin up because it’s time to get to work.

Break the problem down even more

When you know the whole process, you can come up with better solutions.
Puzzle it out for the full picture.

This is like the difference between saying, “I can’t reach that shelf” and “The ladder isn’t tall enough, so I can’t reach the shelf”. The first identifies a broad problem, the second identifies the part of the problem you can work on, i.e. get a taller ladder. This is sometimes the most difficult thing to do with problem solving, and yet it can be the most fun because it opens up a veritable Pandora’s box of questions — questions you may or may not have answers to depending on the complexity of the problem. The key is to start writing down all the little problems within a problem you may find and tackle them one at a time.

This can be a time consuming process as well. For example, the other month my bread machine broke down. We could tell by the fact that the face of the machine still lit up that power was going to it, so my fiancé and I dismantled it looking at potential things that could go wrong. Could it be the build up of gunk around the gears that make the paddle turn? We cleaned them up and tried again. No. OK, how about the motor that turns the paddle? Is it burnt out? Yes. Granted, in honour of full disclosure, I go through a lot of bread machines due to our love of fresh breads and homemade pizza dough, so we’ve got the process down to an art. We already know it’s one of those three things, so it’s just a matter of trial and error to find out the true problem so we can fix it.

(Fun Fact: In case of a burnt out motor, it’s cheaper to get another bread machine from Goodwill than to buy another motor to fix it.)

So, why go through all this? Well, when you know how everything in the system works together, you can find a better solution quicker, easier, and possibly cheaper. Plus, you can show off that studly brain of yours to get some attention.

Now that you’ve got your problem whittled down to a more defined problem that you can work on (or two), it’s time to hit the books — and the internet.

Love the library

Let's hope your branch library is this well stocked! Otherwise, buddy up with the librarian.
Let’s hope your branch library is this well stocked! Otherwise, buddy up with the librarian.

First step here is to get over your fear of the library system. There are a myriad of ways to get hold of the knowledge you need extremely cheaply or free — and we’ll definitely note them when we find them here on Insanitek and/or on social media for your use. Until then, we’ll assume you know of your local library. It is your greatest weapon, so learn how to use it.

If you don’t have the knowledge, you’ll be reading a lot. So, if I were you, I’d get to know your librarians, the library system, and gain a black belt in Google-fu.

Here’s the quickest way to get from problem to solution:

  1. Open up a new tab and type in your problem. Chances are good that someone else has had the same problem and they’ve talked about it somewhere. If this is a yes, go to #2, if it’s a no, go to #3.
  2. Look at their solutions and work arounds — then try one or two. Does it do what you need it to do? If so, excellent! Problem solved, solution does not involve an invention. You can move onto the next one. No? OK, what’s wrong with their solution? Go back through the analysis of what the problem is, but narrow it down further to see what the exact problem is. Repeat until you’ve got the real problem you need to find a solution to.
  3. So, either your problem is novel, no one blogged about it or chatted in a forum about it. As an inventor, this should be more exciting since it means you might get to create something. Before you get excited, pull out all the stops to look for potential solutions by looking for knowledge. Is the plastic-like washer in the bread machine constantly melting? Start with finding out what that washer is really made out of, then see what else you can find that might compare. You might find that the manufacturer was just stupid and didn’t use the best things on the market.
  4. If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you’re in luck because you’re likely about to create something. Isn’t that why you wanted to be an inventor in the first place? Start looking into specifics that are related to your problem. Is the problem the material? The way the part fits? Is it the wrong part all together? This is where the Edisonian and theoretical approaches come in. Look for books online, travel to your library to pick up books. Sit in a cozy corner with a gleam in your eyes… or sit in the corner rocking back and forth mumbling to yourself.
  5. Tinker, analyse, research. Repeat until madness sets in or you’ve come up with a solution to the problem. Don’t be shocked if this is one and the same. 😉

That is essentially what you thought it would be, right? Yep. No surprises there. Once you do create something, you’ll likely be please enough to see if it can be patented. You could fiddle about with the USPTO’s search, but it’s a migraine waiting to happen (like many other government run things). So, take a short cut and use Google’s Patent Search to see if you’ve beaten everyone to the punch.

Hot tip: Use Google’s Patent Search in your initial search for solutions and you might find something right off to save you some problems later on down the road.

Your homework:

Your homework is to work through the research phase and see how far you can get in the process before next week. Remember, I said it was the quickest way, but I didn’t say it was quick. Anything worth doing isn’t that easy. Got any questions? We’re here to help. Find any shortcuts? Shout ’em out for the rest of the class!

See you next week when we talk more in depth about the design process.

Previous: Invention Process

Finding a problem to solve

 Next: Draft and Design

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Testing limits

Exam checklist

Using Creative Commons with your inventions

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