Why inventors need to educate themselves about moldmaking

I love writing about inventors and am always amazed at the great ideas they come up with, many of which turn out to be successful products. That's why I love watching Shark Tank. Many of the inventors come up with ideas involving plastics, which require building a mold. That's often a real challenge for these inventors.

Image courtesy Kromkrathog/freedigitalphotos.net.

The first obstacle is getting a mold built. Over the years, I've talked to many inventors who would visit the injection molding/moldmaking company where I worked to show me their great idea and talk about making a mold. The estimated price I gave them was always a shocker. Their part looked so small and so simple—how could it possibly cost so much for a mold!

I remember one elderly couple that came into the office one day with an invention they called the Beater Bib. It was to be a round, flat polypropylene lid with two holes in the top that would fit on a bowl in which cooks could whip cream, instant puddings and similar foods. The "Beater Bib" would keep the whipped cream, toppings and pudding from splattering out of the bowl and onto counter tops and cabinets by putting the beaters through the two holes and whipping the substances with the lid in place.

There were a number of things wrong with this idea, but this couple was not to be deterred. When I gave them an estimate for the cost of the mold, they didn't blink an eye. They informed me that they had just taken out a mortgage on their home, which they had owned free and clear, to pay for the mold. I about fell off my chair!

We didn't build the mold and I'm not sure what happened to the Beater Bib, but it was evident to me at that time that inventors need to be educated in the business of molds and molding.

The price of molds often deters many inventors, who then seek out cheaper molds, and that usually entails going to China. The recent article I wrote about the Squatty Potty is a case in point. Having a mold built in China, particularly by an individual who is not well-versed in mold design and engineering, and who can't be on hand to oversee the build, is a big risk.

Even today I get calls from people seeking advice on making a mold, and one of the first things I tell them is to find a good plastics part designer who can design and dimension the part to accommodate the molding process. Don't go into a moldmaking company with a drawing on a cocktail napkin and expect them to build you a proper mold. Have good part drawings from the designer in your computer to show the moldmaker.

Second, I tell them to find a mold manufacturer who is nearby so they can drive to the plant and talk one-on-one with the moldmaker. They can also work closely with the moldmaker on any design changes or dimension questions the moldmaker might have. Close collaboration is critical to a successful project, whether you're an independent inventor or a Fortune 500 company.

I also advise them to educate themselves about the molding process and how critical the mold is to optimum processing and the quality of the parts and product.

Additionally, I explain to them why it isn't kosher to ask the moldmaker to build a mold at no charge for a piece of the action down the road when the product is successful. Every inventor knows their product is going to be a million-dollar winner and they'll be rich after everyone in the country buys one of their widgets. Confidence is a good thing, but having the cash to purchase the mold is necessary for true success.

I've known a few moldmakers who fell for this and were badly burned. But, I've also known some that did throw in with the inventor and actually had some success. It just pays to be cautious in these risky ventures--both on the part of the inventor and the moldmaker.

Of course, there's always Shark Tank. Whenever one of the sharks asks the inventor what they need the money for and they reply, "to purchase the steel mold to make this product," I cringe. I love inventors and their amazing minds that come up with ideas I couldn't have thought of in a million years. But I want them to form successful partnerships with their suppliers in the plastics industry, and that requires knowing how deep the water is before they dip their toes.

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