Marketing a Machinery Modification

A woodworker has perfected a great idea for improving an existing piece of equipment. How does he bring his idea to the market? October 3, 2011

I have developed a nifty jig/add-on system to a piece of equipment in the shop. I have spent about a year fine tuning it, and it works great. This system is by far more innovative than the one sold by the manufacturer of the machine, and there is no doubt others would consider purchasing it.

My question is - should I pitch the idea to the machinery manufacturer, or to the public? Have any of you tried this before? I know if I pitch it to the machinery manufacturer, I would have to have non disclosure/complete papers drawn up and accepted before the presentation. That might be a turn-off for them. If I sell to the public, I would have to go through the patent process, or take my chances without, and label it "the original". I just don't want to end up like the guy that invented the windshield wiper motor and never benefit from this idea.

To give you a little more information - the machine this is for is a staple for small and mid-sized shops (almost every shop owner I know has one). There are knock-off imports of this machine that my system could easily be modified to fit. The concept of the system is so great that the original design of the machine should be altered to make it even better and more versatile - turning it into virtually the same machine that costs 25x more.

What would you do - pitch it to the machine manufacturer? Sell to the public? Keep it a secret and reap the rewards in your own shop?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
A few years ago I had an idea for a tool enhancement and contacted Stanley. Their response? We won't even talk to you unless the idea is patented. Of course, once you have your patent (not cheap to acquire to begin with) the idea is out there to be copied and you'll have to defend it in court if it is infringed upon.

Successfully bringing a product to market requires capital, usually lots of it. Assuming that your idea is patentable and has a serious market, there are venture capital funds out there looking for exactly that. A VC deal will cost you a big piece of the ultimate action, but it's better to have 50% of a big pile of money than 100% of nothing.

From contributor K:
Consider contacting FastCap. They have developed a business around the concept of products created by cabinetmakers (DBC - Designed By a Cabinetmaker/Contractor). They already have distribution in place, develop the product and market directly to the people you would want to contact to buy your product anyway. It would be self-defeating to mar this brand concept that they built just to "steal" one idea (they get thousands of submissions per year). Worst case, it will get you market feedback from a company that markets to the people you want to market to.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input guys. I did think about the FastCap idea, it seems as they are more focused in producing items mainly used for work in the field, as opposed to shop equipment. I will look into it and see if there is any opportunity. It sounds like some of you have had experience with FastCap. Have your ideas actually been produced? If so, how was the experience?

From contributor G:
I have been through the patent process. I haven't been through the FastCap system. But I think there are videos of guys who have. They work with all kinds of products that don't have anything to do with woodworking. Talk to them, Inventor types are always skittish, they will know how to handle your concerns.

From contributor J:
I built an accessory fixture for a machine I own. It is such a dramatic improvement over the system provided by the manufacturer, I had to contact them. I cannot imagine using the machine without it. I talked to the owner of the company and he thought his machine needed no improvement and did not see the value in it.

Upon hearing that, I decided to try to sell it myself. This machine is not in every shop, itís quite a small market actually. I was able to promote it a little through some woodworking forums, and sold a number of them. Without a large order of the materials to produce them, I couldn't make much money doing it. I ended up just providing a parts list to people who were interested. Not what you want to hear, but that was my experience.

From the original questioner:
Contributor J - thanks for sharing your experience. If the product you invented was for a more common machine, would you have done things differently? Your situation sounds similar to mine, only it seems mine might have a broader customer base. Having gone through the do-it-yourself avenue, if your product's potential had a bigger impact, do you feel the machinery manufacturer would have seen a bigger investment opportunity?

From contributor I:
We represent a national group of independent sales reps in the wood industry,, and we get a lot of calls just like yours. The woodworking industry has very creative, intelligent inventors with great ideas. They call us up and want us to sell it for them.

The previous post was on the mark about needing a lot of cash to get started. Taking the idea to market is expensive. Think about the cost to produce brochures, web site, train people, videos on how it works, patents, and working samples. Now think about it on a national basis. We have over 100 sales reps in our group. Each would need to show your item to several prospects. They in turn would want literature or samples.

My best advice is to start with a patent - if you don't you will be copied. You might be copied anyway, but the patent has some legal threat. Next, contact the tooling folks or FastCap. FastCap has a great history of helping and also of refining ideas. The only other way is to start small and local and sell it your self, but still get it patented.