Q: Is it okay to send my only prototype to a company that's shown interest in my invention?
A: Giving up your only prototype to a corporation is always risky. If the company you're dealing with is within an easy commute and if you've previously met with the person who'll take responsibility for your prototype, you might consider leaving it. But if you're dealing with a corporation a thousand miles away and your only contact has been by phone, you may be in for disappointment.
I often hear tales of prototypes that aren't returned for several weeks, even months, and then only after many letters and phone calls. The prototype is often abused, broken or even hopelessly lost.
One of my customers sent a $2,000 prototype to a plastic injection molder. The molder returned it poorly packaged and uninsured. Not only was the prototype broken, but key pieces were missing and were never recovered. Another of my customers was unable to retrieve her prototype when the two executives preparing her licensing agreement were both "laid off."
One reason corporations act irresponsibly is that handling prototypes is not an everyday occurrence, and they often have no documented procedure for handling them. Your prototype might bounce around from desk to desk, and unless each reviewer is conscientious, higher priorities inevitably preempt timely handling.
Here are some rules to help you safeguard your prototype:
- Make accurate mechanical drawings before or immediately after making your prototype. If it's lost, you can recover more easily.
- Don't hand over your one and only prototype until you're involved in serious licensing negotiations.
- Negotiate a deadline for when your prototype will be returned to you, and confirm this deadline in a letter to the highest ranking executive involved, with copies to all others.
- Follow up. Call on the day your prototype is due to be shipped to you, and ask for assurance that it will ship.
- Make several prototypes rather than just one or two, and relax the second rule above.
Making several prototypes is expensive, of course. But this strategy gives you the freedom to deal in parallel with several potential licensees rather than serially over what may be a fatally long period of time.
Most of the costs of prototyping lie in planning, sketching and setting up machines. These costs are the same whether the prototyper makes one or 25 pieces. When such costs are spread over several pieces, the cost per piece drops dramatically. Making five or six prototypes may cost only twice as much as making one.
To assure such savings, ask for pricing on one, five, and 10 pieces. This must be done at the outset-before placing the first order and while the vendor is still in the "sharp pencil" mode. If you ask for pricing on quantities after placing the first order, the vendor will often feel the new order is assured and quote high.
Jack Lander is a prototyper for inventors. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for several years as a corporate manufacturing engineer and later, as a mechanical design engineer, acquiring 13 product patents. You can visit his website, The Inventor's Bookstore, at www.inventorhelp.com.