Our March 6 cover story on inventor Jerome Lemelson, the 1995 Design
News Engineer of the Year, triggered a flood of calls and letters from our
readers. Most came from disillusioned engineers who could not get their pet
inventions beyond the idea stage and were looking for some advice from Lemelson,
one of the most successful inventors in U.S. history with some 500 patents.
One engineer responding to the article--Lyle Haugland of Boeing--provided what I thought was an excellent analysis of frustrated would-be inventors. He calls them "The Golden Handcuffs Generation." These are individuals who for various reasons cannot, or think they cannot, pull away from their careers and other commitments enough to bring their innovative ideas to fruition. As Haugland sees it, the actual or imagined "handcuffs" that keep these engineers from following their dreams include:
Marriage and family commitments and responsibilities.
Careers that aren't successful enough to make one financially independent, yet still rewarding enough to discourage the pursuit of riskier but more creative endeavors.
Companies that lay claim to an employee's inventive ideas, regardless of whether or not they are developed on company time or apply to company products.
Lack of education or knowledge of how to patent, develop, and market ideas.
Inadequate support from spouses, relatives, friends, and peers.
Lack of enough good judgment to know how to spend their limited creative time and financial resources.
Haugland has given invention a great deal of thought as a former process improvement expert for the Boeing Defense & Space Group. He argues that corporations and schools could do a lot more to remove the constraints that frustrate creative engineers. More colleges should offer courses in invention and innovation development and marketing. Companies should allow talented engineers to take paid or unpaid sabbaticals to pursue their inventions. Still another need: marketing companies that do not charge individuals until an invention is commercially viable.
All of these are good ideas that could encourage more engineers to conquer their fears and act on their dreams. If you know of such programs, please let us know about them, and we'll spread the word.
The engineers and inventors of the post WWII period turned their attention to advancements in electronics, communication, and entertainment. Breakthrough inventions range from LEGOs and computer gaming to the integrated circuit and Ethernet -- a range of advancements that have little in common except they changed our lives.
Neil Fromer is the executive director of the Resnick Institute, a program for energy and sustainability at the California Institute of Technology, working to develop new ideas and research technologies related to providing a sustainable future. He spoke to us about the severity of the current drought in California and how solar energy can help prevent such situations in the future.
From home enthusiasts to workers on the manufacturing floor, everyone's imagination is captured by the potential of 3D printing. Prototyping, spare parts creation, art delivery, human organ creation, and even mass product production are all being targeted as current and potential uses for the technology.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.