Invention Machine and the Case of the Failing Toilet Flapper

3/12/09Follow @wroush

If you follow Xconomy you might remember a story I wrote a year ago called “Invention Machine and the Case of the Boxed-Up Box Spring.” That piece talked about Goldfire Innovator, the expert-system software for product engineers made by Boston-based Invention Machine, and how mattress manufacturer Leggett & Platt had used the system to solve the age-old problem of how to fit a box spring into a box small enough to ship. I had such a good time visiting Invention Machine that I decided to go back recently and find out what the company has been up to lately. Little did I know that I’d get siphoned into a story about low-flow toilets.

But before I bowl you over with that tale, an update on Invention Machine itself. While a lot of business software companies around town are purging employees to deal with declining demand, Invention Machine saw record sales in the fourth quarter of 2008 and hasn’t had to cut anyone from its staff of 200, according to CEO Mark Atkins.

That could be because in a tight economy, companies see more need than ever for a tool like Goldfire Innovator, which is designed to help product-development teams be more efficient. The software—the latest version of which debuted in January—isn’t designed to replace real engineers. But the reality is that for any organization where the engineering staff is already shrinking, technologies that help the remaining staff work more effectively are at a premium.

“The last thing I want to do is tell you that if you bring our product in, for every seat you license you can knock out three people,” says Atkins. “Given the recessionary economics, [companies] have made their cuts, and what I’m trying to say is that in spite of those cuts, they still have the same demands, if not greater pressures, to get products out to market…What the product will do…is help you assess causes and effects that are creating hurdles to evolving a product. It will help you identify materials that could be substituted to make a product less expensive and more eco-friendly. It will help your manpower get to where they want to go much faster.”

To conserve cash, Atkins says Invention Machine plans to move out of its lofty 39th-floor headquarters at the Prudential Center in search of a better deal on rent elsewhere in the city. But business prospects are generally positive, he says—in fact, he’s forecasting double-digit growth for the year. “Even assuming no improvement in the economy in 2009, we are not having layoffs here.”

And while he hesitates to take comfort in other companies’ distress, Atkins says Invention Machine’s success “is all coming about because manufacturers are under the gun now. There’s a greater urgency to incorporate our product and gain efficiency through sustainable innovation. It was on [companies'] agendas before, but they weren’t moving in the accelerated way that we’re seeing over the last few months.”

To illustrate how organizations are actually using Invention Machine’s tools to innovate, the company put me in touch with Dave Pierson, senior design engineer at the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) in Cleveland, OH. This quasi-public group provides Ohio companies with engineering expertise and help adopting modern manufacturing and product-development technologies. Pierson told me about a project he completed last fall with a local entrepreneur named Wally Berry, who had come up with an idea for combating the water-conservation nightmare created by failing toilet flappers.

If you’ve ever looked inside a standard toilet tank, you probably know that when you depress the flush lever, it pulls a chain that raises a rubber or plastic flapper, letting the water in the tank rush through the hole leading to the bowl. The problem with flappers is that the longer they sit underwater, they more likely they are to warp or stiffen, resulting in a leaking seal. Pierson said Berry learned about this problem the hard way, after he got a $600 water bill for his unoccupied vacation home out West—the result, he ultimately discovered, of a single failed flapper.

With water becoming a scarce resource, especially in the Southwest, Berry thought he’d hit on a lucrative business idea: come up with a way to keep flappers from failing. His first concept was for a motor that would be placed inside a toilet tank, where it would … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://quriosity.com/ Al Bredenberg

    Wade — Maybe someone already let you know about this, but the URL for Invention Machine needs a hyphen: http://www.invention-machine.com . Good article — I’m interested to learn about Goldfire.
    Al B.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Al: Thanks for that. The link is fixed now. Glad you liked the piece.