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Design a device to monitor fuel level in oil tank

March 30. 2013 4:02AM

Editor's note: Sam Asano's column on inventing debuted in the Portsmouth Herald earlier this year. We are publishing his collected columns in sequence in the Sunday and Monday business sections over the next several weeks after which the new columns will appear on Mondays.

This column is for people who have always thought innovations and inventions are a world apart, and so have avoided them. On the contrary, anybody can innovate and invent.

Now for a fundamental picture of innovation. In general, there are two separate large groups.

One is system development, such as the iPhone, high-speed railroads that use magnetic levitation, nuclear reactors and new types of automobile engines. These developments encompass numerous inventions and innovations, hundreds and thousands of patent applications and serious patent litigations that take many years to conclude. Clearly, this field is not for us 99-percenters. The resources required are so astronomical that people are wise to avoid getting involved unless they have really deep pockets. This is the game of giants.

The other group of innovations is called "piggyback" products. For example, iPhone by Apple caused a sizable submarket for accessories. Without mentioning the third-party apps sold through Apple stores, there are many accessories that serve iPhone users to assist and facilitate day-to-day use of iPhones. Similarly, the automobile accessory market is a huge and healthy industry where thousands of smaller firms prosper. If we can develop a solution to problem 1301 (the broomstick), that is an example of a "piggyback." The most important boundary condition (solution needs to fill described conditions) for a piggyback innovation is for it not to require any change to the host product, in this case, the broomstick.

I recommend pursuing the piggyback solution to a problem first. In a few years and after creating a few inventions, you may wish to advance to more complex solutions that approach "system development."

Case study 1301C comes to a close. In the case of the broomstick, a solution was sought that is compatible with other available accessories, and yet users wouldn't need to use any tools to change anything. My suggestion is shown in Fig. 4. It is a metal strut that grabs the horizontal wings of the accessory by spring-loaded clamps, and fixes itself to the broomstick by another spring-loaded clamp. If this idea can be manufactured and marketed within the vicinity of about $10, this gentleman's problem is solved.

New case to ponder

Early Jan. 26, my oil tank went empty while I was asleep. By the time I realized it, the temperature inside was below 50. When I spoke with my oil man, he was humorous and a bit sarcastic as he knew I write a tech article. The oil delivery was made in the midday, but the problem didn't end there. Sludge from the bottom of the tank had run into the filter and the fire nozzle. So the ignition became erratic, and the flame didn't maintain itself. A new repairman had to come, and the diagnosis took a while. All together, the bill came to $225, after replacing the controller.

I was angry at myself. Why had I been so negligent in looking at the tank gauge? So I decided to develop an electronic oil-level gauge that could be retro-mounted to the existing oil tank as a see-through gauge. The device would emit a beep when the oil level drops to a certain point. This is a piggyback development to Case 1302.

Now, let's work together on a solution. Send your ideas to

Shintaro (Sam) Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at


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