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.