Business/ethical advice sought

I am in the position of having people begging to give me money for something I’ve invented, and not sure how or if to proceed.

Many years ago, I found myself with time on my hands and a junk bin full of model airplane servos and other mechanical bits. After a bit of fiddling around I built what one of my friends dubbed a “mechanical limping machine”. It didn’t walk very well or for very long, but it was fun enough to play with that for me to rebuild and redesign it repeatedly in the years since then. The latest version is here. This version is designed with the aim of being a fun toy and entertaining piece of kinetic art, something intended to show off to crowds and interact with people at conventions and other events. In addition to walking reliably and surprisingly quickly it can perform many cute tricks and gestures such as waving at people, shaking hands, playing dead, rolling over, leaning back on its hind legs to look up at people or beg, cowering, etc. It’s got a lot of personality for a little piece of animated metal.

This past week I went to GenCon, and took the robot along. I spent hours walking it around the convention and entertaining people. It was a huge hit, and some of the most frequent comments from people were “Are these for sale?”, “When can I buy one?”, “You need to patent this and sell them” and similar statements. Now I have no problem with making money off my robot hobby. It’s not why I built the machine, but if it happens it would be a nice outcome. But there are a few problems with going commercial.

The first problem is that the robot was not designed with mass-production in mind. It was designed to be the best and most reliable machine I could make, and to that end contains some fairly expensive parts and materials. I estimate the current version would cost about $800 in parts and tooling to build from scratch, and at least a hundred hours of careful hand-machining and assembly. To make it worthwhile to build and sell these I’d have to charge somewhere in the range of $1200-$1500. That’s a lot for a little radio-controlled toy, especially when you can buy commercial radio-controlled toys for under $100.

The difference, of course, is mass-production. I figure that if these robots were being built in lots of 10,000 the price would drop to under $200. That would involve making tooling for injection molding, setting up assembly lines, outsourcing labor to china, consulting lawyers for trademark and patent law, production liability, warranty repair, essentially all the work and hassle of setting up my own toy company. I have not the time, energy, interest, or capital to do that. I already have a day job.

I mentioned the cost to those at the convention who asked about buying a robot. Most people shut up when I explained the situation and expense, but there were still a few who said they’d be willing to pay over a thousand dollars for a machine like this. Not actually surprising, considering that over in the dealer’s room there were people dropping similar sums for unique pieces of artwork and props. I could get a booth in the dealer’s room, sell half a dozen robots over the course of a weekend and pay for the entire convention trip. But this brings up an ethical question.

The robot is still a complex, experimental, fragile machine. I’ve put a lot of effort into making it as robust and reliable as I can. The current version appears to average about an hour between mechanical failures, which is a tremendous improvement over previous versions and meets my goals for a machine I can run for an entire convention weekend with minor downtime for repairs. I don’t consider that acceptable for a $1000+ toy however. And I really don’t want to be in the position for being responsible for customer support and repair.

So, what to do? I’m inclined to go the route of building a limited number and sell them as self-propelled, interactive kinetic art, but I’m concerned about the repair and customer support issues. There are a few things I can do to reduce the price somewhat, including ditching the radio control and making it tether controlled and powered, but I’m still concerned about durability and repair issues. Or I could just keep explaining to everyone that it’s simply too expensive to be worth selling. Or just drop the entire project so I don’t have to keep disappointing people.

Thoughts, advice?

Most companies that make electronic devices figure they need to sell for something like 4 times the cost of the components. And that assumes quick, semi-automated assembly - for “careful hand-machining and assembly” you probably can’t get by for less than $40/hour. So if your cost estimates are accurate, the selling price would probably have to be a lot higher.

ETA: Very interesting device.

First off, that is a neat looking gizmo. Given the range of motion you’ve said you have from it, and the way you can play with it, I can see how you made such a splash.

I can sympathize with your concerns about profitability, and customer service/support. They do sound like a real problem.

My first thought, then, is to see if you can sell the idea and plans for your gizmo to someone else for them to manufacture? I know that several toy companies accept submissions of working gizmos from outside designers. It would give you something of a profit for your hobby, and insulate you from the customer care concerns you bring up. If you could find a buyer.

Granted, this would also involve handing off ALL the decisions about how to bring it to market to someone else, too. Which will probably mean that it’s not exactly like your gizmo, now. It’s a choice you’d have to make.

Yeah, I’ve considered that. Doesn’t really appeal to me. From what I’ve heard the most likely outcome would be for the toy company to look at it, tell me they’re not interested, and then go on to sell a toy just different enough to get away with not crediting me. I’d have to get legal protection and probably patent the original design, at which point we’re getting into more money and hassle that I don’t need. I also suspect that the machine, as currently designed, is too complex and expensive to manufacture for the conventional toy market.

Could you patent it and sell the plans? Sounds like you see this as more of a hobbyist robot than a toy anyway.

Or maybe unassebled kits?

It looks kind of Johnny Quest-ish, in a good way of course.

Or how about the non-normal toy market. Hammeker Schlemmer or The Sharper Image?

Heck make a cool video of it. Put that on YouTube, then charge $1500 and make them as necessary.

Making a decent website and putting a video together is on my to-do list. Must ask around my friends to see who has a modern video camera.

Putting together a set of plans, schematics, firmware, and component sources is also something I can do.

I am also considering building a few and putting them up in the art auction in the next major convention I go to.

Most inventors face the exact same problems you describe once they have finished a prototype. Patenting AFIK, is hugely expensive, and I think you are right to fear that a company you show it to might just make off with the idea.

That’s why the Dutch government subsidized an innovation agency. You give them about 600 dollars and a prototype, and their job is to see if it is patentable in the first place, and secondly, to approach prospective manufacturers. It still is an honor thing that the manufacturer doesn’t make off with the idea, but OTOH the agency, unlike you, has the resources and the know-how to make life miserable for them if they do. Their added value depends on that.

Isn’t there an equivalent of such an agency in the States?

Hie the to a patent person.

Trouble is, patents can be expensive both to obtain and defend (I imagine there is plenty of “prior art” on which a challenge to a walking-robot patent could be based). Nor does obtaining a patent address the question of how to market such a device.

Yeah, I’ve looked at patents on other projects of mine in the past. It’s a time-consuming and fairly costly process. I’m really not sure it would be worth the time as this is more of a niche hobby/art project that I’m not planning to mass-produce anyway. I’m actually considering writing up plans and assembly instructions and then publishing them on the web as free to use. If I do sell any it’s going to be more in the context of hand-made artwork than a toy robot, with the bodywork etched and decorated in some kind of steampunk style or something, at a convention art auction. I just need to convince my wife that gamers will indeed spend $1500 on a unique piece of artwork.

Looks like someone already did it for me.

Ooo! He’s cool. Especially when he rolls over and uses his feet the other way. Have you thought about selling these?

Perhaps you could (after patenting) tout is as a “custom orders only” and ask for enough of a deposit to pay for the construction costs?
Since it is custom-ordered, you can easily tack an extra 10% on to the asking price, and still find enough buyers that you make up for the cost of the patent, and not be out the time and materials for bots that won’t sell.

eta: just saw the youtube. dude, that’s one of the coolest tech gadgets I’ve ever seen!

OK, for some reason I couldn’t really see the stuff you had before, so the youtube was great.

That is a WAY! cool toy.


If you have any thoughts of patent protection, you’d better get rolling. You must file within a limited period (1 year, I believe) of first public disclosure.

I don’t see any ethical problems in charging as much as you can, and only making them if it’s worth your time.

The reliability issue is a legitimate concern. You have to find a way to set expectations at a level that you can meet. That makes the kit idea appealing: someone who likes to build kits will like tinkering, and someone who builds a kit will have a good idea how to adjust it and make repairs.

If you make a ready-to-run version, lots of us dopers will be available for beta testing!

I was gonna do a bit where I accuse you of stealing the work of your LJ name, but I don’t feel like it.

That video is so cool! It should come with miniature sky scrapers to destroy and mount a 1930’s style death ray.

Other than mass production, is there a way to make the bot cheaper? Other than labor, what’s the most expensive part of the bot?

Going the other way, is there a way to make it more durable for another hundred? If somebody is already spending 1200, 1300 isn’t much more.

Ethically, you should feel fine charging whatever people want to pay. I don’t see how ethics enter into it.

Viewed as a toy, a grand is a lot of money. Viewed as a work of techno art it’s perfectly reasonable.

And finally, dammit, why don’t you live closer? You’d be the perfect guru to teach me electronics.

Most of the cost of the machine is the high-end digital model airplane servos. There are two in each leg, eight all together, and I’ve determined through trial and error that the ones I’m using now are pretty much the minimum I can get away with. The rest of the cost is mostly many small bits, pieces of metal, radio gear, and electronic parts. There’s not much I can do with the cost that won’t reduce reliability one way or the other - either making the machine less durable, or increasing weight and therefore stress on the servos.

I could switch to titanium gears in the servos, but that would increase the cost by about $500. That might be worth doing for guaranteed reliability. I may also be able to improve the design of the legs to reduce wear and load on the gears with minor increase in cost.

Not much I can do about that. I do live fairly close to the New Brunswick train station.