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How Inventions Solve Problems With a Real Life Example
How Inventions Solve Problems With A Real Life Example of a Problem Solving Invention for Sealing Underground Utility Conduits
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I certainly agree. The word "necessity" implies that you need something you don't have... a problem that needs a solution!
Solving Problems with Inventions
One of my favorite inventions solved a conduit sealing problem. A friend of mine was injection molding some parts for a gentleman who was selling sealing kits for sealing electrical conduits, the kind that connect the underground vaults to each other under the street. He was marketing to large utility and communications companies like Bell South and Pacific Gas and Electric.
The conduits are made of PVC plastic and over time due to the traffic they can develop cracks. Rain water can then seep into the conduit through the cracks and will then drain into the vaults filling them with water which is bad. The seal is to prevent the vaults from filling up with water.
The gentleman was selling about 60,000 kits per month. The problem was his kits did not work. It was only a matter of time before one of his customers would test his product and then there would be big problems.
The sealing kits his product was replacing had a variety of problems. The kits used a two-part foam resin. The resin was contained in two separate parts of a large syringe, about an inch in diameter and 8 inches long. To use the syringe you have to use the plunger to break the seal and then pump it in and out for a few seconds to mix the two resins together. Then you remove the plunger, switching it to the other end of the syringe to inject it into the conduit that needs sealing.
Once injected into the conduit, the foam would rapidly expand forming a foam plug in the conduit and thus sealing it against water intrusion. The main problem was that the reaction between the two resins occurs in just a few seconds, and if you weren't quick enough in switching the parts around on the syringe it could blow up and cover you with the expanding foam.
Another disadvantage was that even for small conduits you ended up using the whole syringe which contains more than enough foam resin to seal the largest conduits... a real waste of money.
The new syringe that the gentleman came up with was a double syringe, the two cylinders joined together along the axis. The resins would mix together as the were forced through a special mixing nozzle. A used nozzle can be detached from the nozzle with a twist and thrown away. A small cap is placed over the nozzle opening in the syringe, and seals the syringes and so you can use any amount of resin you need for the job and not waste any.
Not only does it solve the problems of the exploding foam syringe, but it saves dollars by allowing the correct amount of resin to be dispensed depending on the size of the conduit being sealed.
When I was first approached he told me he was having a problem with the mixing part of the sealing kit. He stated that he needed an improved mixing nozzle for the syringe. He explained to me how the better the mixing, the smaller and more uniform the foam bubbles were, and how that produced stronger foam. He didn't mention anything about leaking conduits.
He told me that he was selling about 60,000 nozzles a month and expected to be selling over a hundred thousand nozzles a month by the end of the year. He offered me five cents a nozzle if I could come up with a solution to his problem. That would be $3,000 a month! I agreed after several seconds of heavy deliberation.
He provided me with as many of the sealing kits and nozzles as I wanted. The nozzles were long slender plastic tubes with a bayonet fitting at the inlet, and a small hole in the tip to dispense the foam.
Inside the tube were little plastic mixing elements. They look like little turbines or fan blades all stacked up in a row. Each little section would divide the incoming flow of material into two streams and this was done over and over until the two parts exited the hole in the end of the nozzle.
I attacked the problem using the trial and error method. I would make a mixing element and insert it into a nozzle and then fill a small plastic cup through the nozzle. After the foam set up I would cut it open and examine the bubble size and uniformity and look for un-mixed resin. I tried all sorts of designs for getting better mixing, made out of wood, plastic, and metal.
I finally came up with a mixing nozzle that did a much better job of mixing. When I showed the foam test results to him, and he tried my nozzles for himself he was excited as can be. His engineering department was there and they were all impressed too. Not only did the nozzle mix better, but it would be much less expensive to make than the mixing elements he was currently using. I've seen them at my dentist's office where they use mixing nozzles frequently. You can see the little white mixing elements through the clear syringe material.
These mixing nozzles are all over the place. They have different diameters and lengths for different applications which include things like medical compounds for doctors and dentists, adhesives of all kinds, auto body shops, utility companies, electronics etc.
We didn't end up using the nozzles, as it turned out the mixing was not the problem with the sealing. A couple of days later the gentleman called me up and told me that the new nozzles weren't working. His conduits still leaked even though the foam was better.
It was only then that he explained to me about the conduits and the sealing against water problem he was having. Remember, he originally asked me to develop a nozzle that mixed the foam better... he did not mention anything about leaking conduits.
We had another meeting where we went over the whole thing this time, including providing me with several of the older kits he was competing against, and a few pieces of conduit for me to using in my testing.
For testing we took 4 foot long 6 inch diameter PVC conduit sections, plugged the end, and stood them up on end after the foam set up. After an hour we would fill the conduit with water and see if it leaked.
The old original kits sealed the conduits but the ones sealed with the syringes always leaked. After each test I would knock the foam plug out with a piece of 2 x 4 wood. I began to notice that the foam plugs that I knocked out were torn up in one spot, but intact an smooth on the rest of the surface that had been in contact with the wall of the conduit. It didn't take me long after that to figure out that the foam plugs were only "glued" in one spot, the spot where the two part epoxy resin sat after coming out of the nozzle but before foaming up and forming the plug.
The foam plug would adhere strongly to the conduit where the puddle sat before foaming. As the foam rises it forms a skin on its surface and when it reaches the top of the conduit it doesn't actually "glue" or adhere to the surface.
I took one of the nozzles and plugged the hole in the end. Then I punched holes radially around the tip. Now when the fluid in the syringe is dispensed it squirts out of the nozzle in all directions coating the entire inside diameter of the conduit with the not-yet-foamed resin mixture. It adheres very strongly all the way around. I could not even knock the plugs out with a 2 x 4. Problem solved; not a drop of leakage in any test.
Not long after that the gentleman with the sealing kits went bankrupt for other reasons and I never did see any money. Se la vie!
But one of these days I may get into the nozzle mixing element business. I could make mixing elements that work better than what is out there at about 10 percent of the cost.
The next time your inventive creative mind comes up with a solution to some problem consider whether your idea might be a marketable, patentable, profitable new product or service.
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