Invention Machine and the Case of the Failing Toilet Flapper
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automatically flush the tank twice a day—even when the owners weren’t around—-in order to reset the seal and keep the flapper limber. He brought the idea to MAGNET for engineering help.
Pierson says the folks at MAGNET immediately agreed that a product designed to stop toilets from leaking could be a big hit. But the motor idea didn’t seem to get to the core of the problem, which was the flapper itself—there were too many ways for it to fail.
Using Goldfire Innovator, Pierson says, he and Berry conducted a “root-cause analysis,” one of the many standard engineering exercises that the software is designed to handle. In a toilet, they decided, the underlying problem is stopping the water from leaving the tank—unless, of course, it’s being flushed.
“After that I really started to use Goldfire to take a deep dive and took at ways of stopping the water flow. Through Goldfire’s functional modeling, I saw some solution paths that were the reciprocal of what I wanted—for example, I could find ways to stop air with water.” And that led him to think about the opposite idea: how to stop water with air.
It’s worth pausing here, because Pierson’s story gets at a key point about Invention Machine’s software. It doesn’t literally understand a machine or a model—it’s not artificially intelligent—but it can be used to represent and explore functional relationships between components in a model. And it can show different ways those components might fit together. Rather than replacing a human expert, in other words, it helps humans think, by presenting alternative arrangements they might not have considered, and helping them to eliminate arrangements that won’t work.
“The software helped me define the problem so well that all that was left was one viable conduit to a solution: stopping the water with air,” Pierson summarizes. The result was a design that eliminated the flapper altogether, replacing it with a “float chamber” that blocks water from leaving the tank using inverted pockets of air.
It’s a little hard to explain how the float chamber works in words—so check out the animation at left, as well as the very helpful video over at the Web page for Siphon Flush, the product Pierson ultimately helped Berry to develop. Suffice it to say that when someone flushes a toilet equipped with the Siphon Flush device (which is designed to take the place of the usual flapper and overflow tube), the float chamber is submerged, breaking the seal and allowing water to rush through a flexible hose into the toilet bowl. Once the tank is empty and starts to refill, inverted air valves in the float chamber keep water out of the chamber, which therefore rises atop the hose until it’s in position for the next flush.
Berry and Pierson used Goldfire to reduce the number of parts in the device and to discover a material for the hose that wouldn’t twist and buckle when compressed; they ended up finding a medical-device supplier that made the perfect material. They patented the whole mechanism, and last October Berry debuted Siphon Flush at a household-fixtures expo in Las Vegas.
“It’s a revolutionary product—it’s like going from a phonograph to a CD,” Pierson says. “The director of the water district for Prescott, Arizona, came over and said ‘How soon can I get 5,000 of these?’ It snowballed from there.” Pierson says Berry’s company, American Innovative Products, now has at least 10,000 orders for the Siphon Flush, which is enough to get manufacturing partners interested.
Not every user of Goldfire Innovator, however, is as skilled as Pierson. So in the latest release, version 5.0, Invention Machine has added features designed to help even novice users make the same kinds of connections Pierson made.
“People don’t really think outside the box very well,” says James Todhunter, Invention Machine’s chief technology officer. So most of the software’s new features—such as social-networking tools and clearer step-by-step instructions for evaluating a product concept—“are about empowering knowledge workers and engineers by expanding the box, helping them be part of a much larger box.”
Or a larger bowl, as the case may be. In the end, companies are evidently turning to Goldfire Innovator in droves because “innovation is more of an imperative than ever before,” in Atkins’ words. So just remember—if you run into somebody from Invention Machine and they tell you business is in the toilet, they’re probably not talking about profits.
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