From idea to product

Tomorrow, I’ll have a booth set up at a local event, the Mountain Maker Fest, where I’ll show some of the steps in how I turned an idea into a product that (hopefully) you can buy in stores everywhere. So, for those of you who won’t happen to be in Accident, MD (yes, that’s really the name of the town) tomorrow, here’s a bit of a rundown of how I’ve done it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but hopefully it may be helpful to any aspiring inventors out there.

Basically, my process started with the fact that my 5 y/o boy at the time loved to play Uno and it was always a hassle – the paper box it comes in fell apart long ago and the card piles were always getting knocked over.  I built the original version in my garage woodshop (see the picture in the banner – it’s the black on in the middle). I got lots of compliments about it and it seemed like a good idea to develop further, but I really didn’t know where to go with it. I think at some point I submitted it to the invention site Quirky.  I didn’t end up getting picked up, which is good since you only get a very small share of the product and Quirky ended up having some issues later on anyway.
About three years passed as they do and I started getting interested in Kickstarter and thought my card case might be a good product to launch on there. But in order to have something that looked better than some wood scraps glued together, I taught myself Autodesk Inventor – there is a free educational version and lots of online videos to learn from (I have since upgraded to the Profession version and it wasn’t cheap!).  I have heard that Solidworks is also good for 3D product design, too.  Whatever your CAD (computer-aided design) software, one of the key things you’ll need going forward is the CAD file of your product.  From 3D printing to the construction of the tooling for injection molding, they both use some format of your CAD file – there are lots of file formats out there and everyone seems to need a different one, but Inventor have been able to export my design into any of them so far. You can also go through a professional designer, but I haven’t done that yet, so I can’t offer any advice on that front.
Now that I had at least the general CAD of the product, I needed to get some physical copies made.  I was lucky that a friend (who also helped me design some of the original versions of the Card Caddy) had access to a 3D printer and he was able to print me out a few copies.  Failing that, you can use an online service like Shapeways to 3D print your stuff to see how it feels and works in real life. You can see some of the versions we 3D printed below – the design evolved from two distinct parts on the bottom left and middle, to a single part replicated twice.  In the middle top versions, I increased the side opening so that cards could fit going out the side.20150502_084046 Once you have a printed version of your product, you can make some resin casts of it for low-cost copies of it if your piece’s geometry is amenable (usually have to have a flat surface that forms the open top part of the mold).  The Card Caddy was well-suited to this since so I was able to make a bunch of resin casts of the original 3D printed part to show off and see how they worked with each other. The purple box on the left in the picture below is the mold I made for one of the versions of the Card Caddy – it’s rubbery, so you can flex it to get the item out when it has hardened, and you can see a few of the finished casts in the foreground.
Once I had a few copies and iterated a couple of times, I had a product design I knew would work, and some copies to take photos of for a Kickstarter campaign.  To get them produced for the first Kickstarter, I went with a small production scale service, Xcentric.  There are others like Protomold that also do prototyping and small-scale production (Protolabs also has a great educational resources on their website, including lots of free samples that show how an injection mold works, types of plastic etc,).  Basically, these places make a mold from aluminum which is cheaper and easier to work with than steel, but it is more costly to make each individual piece.
The Kickstarter was a success (barely) and in much thanks to some angel backers who pledged for some metal versions of the Card Caddy.  There’s a ton of resources out there on running a successful Kickstarter – here’s an earlier post I did that references some good sources. After some bumps in production with Xcentric, I delivered the Kickstarter versions of the product only a few weeks late and only lost a few hundred dollars in the process.  Those original versions from the Kickstarter (below) were pretty close to today’s design – I added the rectangular channel for the snap-on accessories, some better access for a chip in the hole, but overall it’s about the same as the final 3D printed version.Front w_ Deck Inside
After the successful Kickstarter, it seemed like there was enough support and interest in the idea to make this into a real product.  At that point, I stood up a real business, made an investment in it and started some large scale production runs and attending trade shows.  But that’s a topic for Part 2  – more to follow soon!
I think the main theme from this post is if you have an idea, there are tons of resources out there to make it a reality – don’t just sit on it because someone will likely eventually think of it, too!
old and new
This last picture shows the original wooden version and the Double Decker which we just finished a successful Kickstarter for and is currently in production.

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