Inventing well beats engineering well.

Yesterday, I broke my keys. 

I’ve been using a device called a Keyport slide for the last for five years, to house and organize my car and house keys. I dropped my keys and a part on the device snapped, and now the housing of the device cannot be securely closed. The keys are retained in sliding channels, and without the cap, all the keys can fall out. 

So I went to the website, to see if I could buy a new cap. Unfortunately, my version of the Keyport is too old, and I can’t buy new parts for it. It’s kind of expensive device, $35 when it was new, but the endcap was probably only two or three dollars. Before I called, I was considering modeling a replacement cap for it in a cad program, but then I realized just how cheap it was to just buy the replacement, and convinced myself that this was not an opportunity for a worthwhile 3-D printing project. 

Now my options are to either buy an entirely new replacements for the Keyport, which can cost anywhere between $20 and $45 for the second or third generation models, or I can just go back to having ordinary keys. At $45 (plus another 20, depending upon whether I want to add any of the whizbang new features, like a Bluetooth locator and a flashlight a pocket knife, or a pair of scissors…), though, now we’ve approached an amount of money that might be enough to encourage me to undertake this as a project. Still, even representing a $45 savings, my time commitment to make a replacement part easily exceeds the value of my time. It’s just that $45 cost savings strikes me as a worthwhile amount to justify having a little fun in solving a problem on my own savings strikes me as a worthwhile amount to justify having a little fun in solving a problem on my own. 

Further, if I am making replacement parts, should I just make the mere replacement as best I can, or should I undertake adding or correcting features which were troublesome, before? 

The keyport consolidates keys into a narrow rectangular prism shape that is easier to cram into a pocket carrying a cell phone and other flat objects, but it doesn’t present a completely flat face on the broadest side, because several hard metal buttons for extending the keys out of the body stand several millimeters proud of the face. While they are round, they still present a scratching hazard to cell phones and the buttons also can catch and tangle on the lanyard that connected the end cap to the key ring (that I use for fobs and a small pocketknife). 

I have drawn, many times over many years, a replacement end cap that relocated the buttons in such a way that they would no longer stand proud of the broad faces, without requiring modification of the rest of the device. If I decide that I want to keep using the device, by making a replacement end cap, then I might as well take the time to make the one which fixes my irritations while I’m at-it, right?

No. Here’s why:

Clearly, designing for a device that I have, to solve the problem at hand, is the simplest way to solve the problem. But we’re talking about just MY problem, which is a design flaw of a device which is no longer sold. At best, I make one that does work as I would like, while being fun to have taken the time to design and make. 

Being an engineer warrants doing the thing which solves the problem with the least fuss. However, undertaking designing and making almost anything incurs unforeseen struggles. Even making an identical cap may not avoid such surprises, let alone one that replaces a feature with something I’ve merely drawn, nevermind how many times. Successfully making a excellent replacement part that also fixes the shortcomings of the original design isn’t even a wonderful prospect, because the device which I am improving has been discontinued, so there is very little chance that I could reproduce it for other keyport owners, and thereby potentially reap a business benefit for having undertaken the task. 

Beyond that, even if I made one that fit a later version of the keyport, my market would be limited to the small group of people who already own a keyport, and who would also want to replace an original part with a part made by a third party supplier.

Engineering tells us to not re-invent the wheel. But good business sense that if you build a ( substantively new and) better mousetrap, that the world will beat a path to your door. There is no money in doing things just for yourself. Better to do for everyone, if that solves a problem that many others have.

Wouldn’t it make more sense, for having invented something that may have relative attractiveness by its superior function, to simply make an alternative to the entire keyport product? A patent on the invention which would be a relative improvement over the Keyport could be licensed to keyport so that they could sell an improved device, but if I make an alternative to a keyport, instead, then the efforts approach a lucrative market-ready product first, and delay an opportunity for Keyport to catch up (whether or not they improve by licensing my improvement or simply attempt to compete with an alternative that lies outside the scope of my invention). 

Making a device limited to an improvement of the existing product also may produce only as much scope as to prevent keyport from making my improvement of something within their own realm of protection, and therefore wouldn’t even be enforceable against infringements of my scope, unless it also infringed the keyport itself. 

I think that it makes more sense, if it is only a moderate risk of additional time spent, to make the invention that stands at least a small chance of turning out so well as to give an opportunity to protect a salable product. 
Invent what you can sell and protect, not the simplest way to solve the problem.