Flushed With Success

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Although he was awarded more than 1,000 patents during his life, Thomas Edison famously said that he had failed more than 10,000 times in the process.

Inventors know that success usually comes only after running down many blind alleys. Failure can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, but if inventors can be guided down the most promising paths, they can dramatically cut down on time, cost and frustration.

When David Pearson was presented with the challenge of reinventing one of the world’s most common household objects recently, he applied automation to the task of guiding him toward the goal. The result: A better product designed at half the time and less than half the cost.

Pearson works for the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network (Magnet), a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that incubates inventors’ ideas and helps bring them to market using local resources. Pearson’s task was to take a novel idea by inventor Wally Berry to reinvent a core component of the everyday toilet and turn it into reality.

Flushing the Old
According to the plumbing services in Staten Island & Brooklyn, the average toilet can actually stand an overhaul, for it is one of the chief sources of water waste in the US. In the south central and southwestern US, where water supplies are dwindling and costs are soaring, the steady drip of aging toilets has become a major concern of financially strapped municipalities. Berry had an idea to build a better toilet.

He knew that one of the chief causes of water waste is a device called the flapper valve. That’s a spring-loaded plate that permits fresh water to flow into the tank but blocks backflow. Most conventional flapper valves have a rubber seal that is prone to erosion by chemicals in the water supply and household cleaning agents. As tiny cracks develop in the flapper valve, toilets can start leaking gallons of water each day without their owners even knowing. Multiply that by an estimated 220 million toilets in US households, and it adds up to a lot of wasted water.

Berry had conceived of the idea of a leak-proof toilet while solving a problem in his own home. He set out to reinvent the flapper valve and submitted his idea it to Magnet, which chose to fund it. Pearson’s job was to make the concept practical, economical and capable of being mass-produced.

For help, he turned to Goldfire, a software suite from Boston-based Invention Machine, that applies automation to the inspiration of product design. Goldfire can be programmed to tap into databases of original art, products and materials and extract their essential elements. The software prompts designers through the process of deconstructing a problem into its most basic components. Goldfire that helps the designer probe for alternative technologies or materials that can solve the problem better or more cheaply.

For Pearson, designing a new flapper valve involved describing the function it fulfilled in the most basic terms. He built a model in Goldfire that removed the existing flapper valve and replaced it with a description of the function it performed. Instead of looking for a better value, “I needed to find a flexible element that changes with fluid level,” he said. Once he discarded the idea of building a better valve, alternatives opened up.

The most intriguing idea was a spiral-wound hose, which could expand an compress with fluid levels. The problem with spirals, however, is that they spin when compressed. That wouldn’t work within the confines of a small water tank. So Pearson defined the characteristics he needed and sent Goldfire out to look for spiral-wound hoses that wouldn’t spin.

It turns out such a technology is used in surgical applications. Bingo. Pearson incorporated the surgical hose into his model. He applied the same discipline to several other components of the flush valve and began converging the elements, using the software to search for weak points in the model at every step. “I basically narrowed the design down to the few basic elements that I needed,” he says.

A Simpler Approach

What was left after the entire cycle had been completed was a valve retrofit kit that was vastly simpler than the original equipment it replaced. A standard toilet has about a dozen discreet parts; Siphon Flush has just four.

Simplicity also yielded better reliability, enabling American Innovative Products to go to market with an unusual 20-year guarantee. And there was an unanticipated side-benefit: The more efficient flushing mechanism is able to flush twice as much matter with one-quarter less water, further improving its economy.

American Innovative Products will begin shipping Siphon Flush in early March at a price of $27.95. The small firm already has 10,000 orders in its pipeline. Siphon Flush is a radical new design of a product that’s more than 100 years old. Without Goldfire’s guided innovation, “I’m not going to say I couldn’t have done it, but it would have cost twice as much and taken two to three years,” says Pearson.

American Innovative’s Berry says the software cut development costs by 75%, and that’s assuming the product could have been developed in the first place. “Without Goldfire’s definition of what we needed, we’d probably still be looking,” he says.