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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Suggestions for oil tank level monitor

March 31. 2013 3:25PM

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.

I WAS PLEASANTLY surprised to receive 10 entries on the subject of monitoring the oil tank level.

Each entry was accompanied with sketches, just as an inventor should practice. As I stated before, the purpose of this column is to raise awareness of possible everyday inventions (that anybody can do), and thus help increase small-business manufacturing in this region. It seems we are off to a good start.

On Sunday, I mentioned that there are two types of inventions. One deals with "systems" such as the iPhone, high-speed trains, etc., and creates a large complex system. The other is a "piggyback" invention that attaches to an existing device to solve specific problems. In most cases, small-time inventors (that's us 99-percenters) should stick with the latter. Risk is small and so is the development cost.

When working to develop "piggyback" inventions, be sure that the problem is well defined in your mind, and that you can state it in your notebook in plain English. Why? Because often an inventor's mind drifts away from the original definition, and evolves (or devolves) into something encompassing a larger or different issue.

In inventor's lexicon, there is a way to express those inventions that are just right - or perfect - for solving the problem. They do the job, no less and no more. Because designers are often isolated from the actual users, they add features nobody needs. A good example is a car GPS with voice instruction with a miniature kill-switch on its back that no one can find once it's installed on the windshield.

Of the 10 entries I received, three apply light beam interruption through the level gauge; one uses a pressure switch; an entrant from France (yes, France) suggests a new U.S. Patent Law revision for me to read and praises the column; one entry mentions having found a ready-made retrofitable product; one entry suggests use of sound waves inside the tank as though it is a musical instrument; and one suggests using a "bubble tube."

My overall impression of these entries is that they slightly miss the mark.

In developing a "piggyback" solution to a problem like the oil tank level gauge, we must come up with a product that requires no effort from consumers. Get it, unpack it from the box and mount it on the tank. That should be all that is required. The solution must be standalone with one or two AA batteries and no connection to an outside power source. When the oil level falls to the preset level, it should trigger a sound alarm. That's it. No less and no more.

For those inventors who suggested more complex solutions, especially those that require work on the oil tank itself, such as inserting a metal tube, etc., you must consider complex legal issues and hurdles that await your application to market. That is why the "piggyback" should be a pure piggyback. One strict boundary condition (spec) is that consumers should not be asked to do work such as modifying the tank, running electrical lines to the tank, etc.

I sincerely appreciated that there were many entries given to us on very short notice. I loved your enthusiasm and clever thinking. Please keep them coming.

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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