Plainville, MA--At an age when many of his contemporaries are pursuing their retirement dreams, sixty-nine-year-old Ken Bibby is still putting in long days at the office. But don't feel bad for him: His office is his home workshop, where for nearly 20 years he has been living what many engineers would call the ultimate dream.
"I invent all day long," he says. And, he makes a living at it!
Bibby has been a full-time inventor since 1981, when the company he worked at went out of business. His specialty: machinery. His most recent project: a machine that will use dry granules of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) instead of ink for the printing of floor and wall coverings and roof tiles, among other products.
"Most floor coverings are printed by a rotogravure press, but that process only prints the pattern on the surface of the material and results in a product that scratches easily," he says. Bibby says his machine and process make it possible to apply the patterns all the way through the material.
In his process, the flooring or other substrate moves past two or more stations with rotating screens containing the granules. Suction holds the granular material to the surface of the drums. The system releases the suction to drop the granules in the desired pattern.
"The result is a more rugged floor covering that won't show scratches," he claims.
Among his other patented inventions: a new way to hold the laminations together inside a gyroscope motor (basically, he uses Super Glue), a hearing aid that fits any ear (never commercialized, in part, he says, because the hearing-aid industry makes more money on custom-fit devices), a method for coating stainless steel wire with Teflon(reg) to provide slip properties and electrical insulation (Applied Plastics Corp., Norwood, MA, who hired him to develop the process, decided not to patent it to keep the process secret), and a toothbrush that includes a pump to generate bubbles that travel through tubing to the brush (also not commercialized yet). Additionally, over the years he has developed new one-of-a-kind machines for hundreds of companies in several industries.
"Most of what I invent, I do for others," he says. "People call me all the time and ask me to solve problems for them."
Wanderlust. One early problem was of the personal kind, and his solution set him on course for his career as an inventor. Apprenticed as a jig and tool draftsman in his native England, he had worked as a young man for Leyland Motors (now British Leyland), a consulting engineering firm, and a floor-covering company. The latter built a factory Australia in 1964, and after he finished helping set it up, "I got the wanderlust," he says. Decision: Should he move to Australia with the floor-covering company, stay in the northwest of England, where his roots were, or take his wife and two young children to the U.S., where he knew no one. He grabbed the U.S. option, moving to Boston. On his second day there, he got a job designing specialty machinery for Colson, Inc.
Eventually, that British floor covering company sold out to another which then went out of business. "That's when I began full-time inventing," he recalls.
It's also when he learned the difference between inventing and patenting.
"Inventing is fun," he asserts. "Patenting pays the bills." Problem: "Patenting gets you involved with lawyers and licensing."
Recently, he won a lengthy patent suit over his PVC-based floor-covering printer. It was an expensive victory, however, with legal and administrative fees. There was little money left over to actually build the machine. Arthur D. Enterprises, Inc. to the rescue.
The Cambridge, MA engineering firm has a Technology Transfer Division that takes others' ideas to market. The firm is sharing Bibby's expenses to commercialize the machine, and will split royalties with him.
Learning to survive problems such as the patent imbroglio is a necessity for inventors, Bibby says. To ease the pain, he says, engineers should join organizations such as the Inventors Association of New England. He is president of the 200-member group, which meets monthly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bibby has two pieces of advice to would-be inventors: 1. Dream about your design problems ("I let my subconscious work them out while I sleep, and invariably I wake up with the solutions.") 2. Find a financial backer. It takes money to patent an invention, he says, and taking it to market is a skill many creative people don't have.
Still, despite fund-raising and legal necessities, he believes the life of an inventor is ideal. "I would never go back to full-time work," he says. "This is more fun."