A "good idea" needs more to succeed

He has a personalised number plate that reads "GADGETS"; he is known to his friends as Gyro Gearloose and he is a modern version of that 19th century phenomenon - the inventor.

His name is Richard Cathro and he lives in Dunedin where he is the managing director of Zoom Tech Limited, an engineering and innovation company based in that city. Cathro admits he is an enthusiast, just like Edison, Dunlop, Firestone and Bell were in the 19th century, but he believes today's inventor is much more aware of the commercial applications of his or her inventions.

Cathro says today it is not just good enough to have a "good idea". He believes for an invention to succeed for an inventor, there must not only be sound financial backing, but also everything has to be tied up carefully by the lawyers and once the product is ready to be marketed commercially, that there is a sound marketing plan.

"The days have long gone when all you had to do was to file for a patent to cover your invention," he says. "To make your product saleable you need a large network of people. The corporate world and engineering are coming closer all the time."

However he admits the basis of any invention of a new engineering product lies in the ability to turn a concept into commercial reality. He says it often starts at what he calls the "napkin stage." Cathro explains this as being some new concept drawn on a paper napkin to try to explain it to your mates over a few beers.

Sometimes it is simply that - just an idea. However, Cathro says that if you keep that napkin and after a few weeks of looking [at] the design, it still looks like a good idea, it probably is. He says that if you can transform that idea into reality at reasonable cost and there is a market for it, you're on a winner.

In support of this proposition, he points to an invention he worked on several years ago. This worked on the principal of "thermo fusion" and using this principal, a process was developed that turns plastic bags and shrink wrap into usable plastic product for other items such as fence posts. He was involved with the original concept with a large Dunedin company and working with a Christchurch-based company.

Cathro has invented an astonishingly wide range of products. These have included modified bicycles, polystyrene houses, machines that can change the taste of water, a large number of downhill trolley racers (including innovative mag wheels). He has also invented a wine glass holder that sits on top of a bottle and new gearbox parts for motor vehicles.

However, he has received very wide and highly acclaimed international recognition for a spinal implant.

This is a titanium and Teflon clip that can be inserted by surgeons into the spine. It is designed to relieve pressure on or pinching of the spinal cord, thus preventing ailments such as pain, chronic pins and needles, numbness and headaches. A spring mechanism on the clip stops bones from impacting on the spinal cord. This has been widely patented as the CLP System or Cervical Laminoplasty Plate System and has been acclaimed by many orthopaedic surgeons all over the world.

Cathro is modest about his inventions but says to be a successful inventor it is essential to be able to think outside existing concepts, in other words "outside of the square".

However, once again he emphasises that there is no room for dreamers in todays commercial environment. He points out that a new concept in any market gives the marketeer a significant commercial advantage over the competition. This means that discretion must be absolute at all times.

Cathro admits that Zoom Tech limited is currently working with a large number of companies and individuals on the development of a new product in the light engineering field. However, he has not - nor ever will disclose to anyone outside the company who those customers are and what is being developed.

He says this need to protect products from pirates has meant the individual inventor needs the financial resources to protect his product. He knows this from bitter experience having had one of his ideas stolen some years ago buy a large commercial concern. Cathro says there was not much he could do about it because he could not afford the legal firepower of the pirates. Guarding intellectual property is an expensive business, he says.

Colin Dawson, chief executive officer of Otago Innovations, the commercialisation arm of the University of Otago agrees with Cathro on this point. He says big corporate research and development divisions of corporates are more and more replacing individuals like Cathro. 

however, Richard Cathro is not downhearted. He is much more "streetwise" than he was and keeps everything under wraps.

He is philosophical about the future and believes Zoom Tech Limited will continue to punch above its weight in the invention and development of new products. "you just have to get on with the job," he says.

Today Zoom Tech limited operates with state-of-the-art machines and made this investment after careful consideration of what was available internationally. These include a high-speed 4-axis Kitamura Machining Center purchased from Total CNC Products. "I wanted the best both with machine quality and the guaranteed future support from the supplier," says Cathro. "The decision to go with a Kitamura and Total CNC has proven to be the right one and their continued support is faultless."

The Kitamura compliments a variety of other CNC machines and offers the workshop a range of capacities to deliver hi-tech engineering solutions. 

Recently Zoom Tech Limited has focused on cavity tooling. these complex pieces have included machining an internal helical and a form of undercut angle.

every hi-tech machine, like the 4-axis Kitamura has a range of capacities and Richard Cathro in with people such as Rodney Oxford and Willy Colenso from Total CNC Products to exploit and harness every capacity of the machine to the limit.


New Zealand Engineering News

September 2006