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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: There can be many solutions to one problem

June 08. 2014 11:26PM

If a would-be 99 percent inventor has difficulty finding a problem to work on, then he/she can’t be a good inventor. A fundamental set of skills as an inventor is high sensitivity in observation. If something bothers you, stop and analyze it.

I am not saying that you should be a complainer or hypochondriac. Instead you should think quietly why a certain thing would bother you. There are certain people, to whom no irritable situation exists. If you are one of these people, perhaps you won’t be a productive inventor.

Last week we discussed the situation on coffee mugs. As the FIG 1 of June 2 demonstrated, the coffee mug hung on a mug tree always points upward with its bottom down. Coffee mugs come out of the wash with some wetness inside. If hung by the handle on the tree, chances are the inside bottom would end up with a small triangular spot made out of wash residue.

I didn’t suggest any solution for it last week as I felt 99 percent inventors should develop their own solutions. Now let us discuss some possibilities for solutions. Please see the graphic (Page C2).

FIG 2A is the solution to change the handle shape. Instead of the handle that doesn’t take into consideration the weight distribution of the mug, the new handle is reshaped to automatically hang with the bottom slightly up. This is because the pinnacle of the handle is located behind the center of gravity.

FIG 2B is a mug tree with two pegs per cup. The second peg forces the mug to be hung with the bottom up. This design probably requires the center pole stock to be thicker than the conventional mug tree to accommodate the second pegs.

FIG 2C is a mug tree whose pegs are “L” shaped with the vertical portion pointing upward. Mugs will sit on that part of the peg with its bottom up.

FIG 2D is a rack that accommodates many mugs with their top down. This type of storage system may be more suitable for restaurants and diners, and not for home kitchens.

Now let’s discuss merits and demerits of each solution. This is what 99 percent inventors must do; compare various solutions so as to pick the best suited.

FIF 2A is a solution that cleanly solves the problem. A majority of amateur inventors tend to like this solution. This is an intellectual victory based on observation of the weight distribution diagram, and it is neat and smart. One problem: There is no mug made yet with this reshaped handle. Most of mug blanks are made in China today. For the mug manufactures to change the handle shape would take some time. Even if the new handle shape becomes a standard shipment, it doesn’t solve the problem of today’s existing mug. How many are here in America? I’d say at least two billion. The solution is neat, but academic.

FIG 2B requires making a new mug tree with two pegs per mug. It is not a difficult task, and incremental cost of making such a tree is not significant. The one minor problem is that users may not realize the mug handle must be held pinched between the two pegs for its bottom to be slightly up. If mugs are hung from the top peg, it accomplishes nothing.

FIG 2C holds mugs either at its rim or at the bottom. It satisfies the requirement that the bottom should be up, but also creates the problem that the inner surface of the mug touches the peg. Because pegs may carry some bacteria, this may not be the most sanitary solution.FIG 2D is a flat rack that accommodates many mugs, and the rack can be stacked up to result in much higher space efficiency. The problem is the rim of the mug touches the rack, and therefore it doesn’t represent the best sanitary solution. This solution may be suitable for restaurants and diners, though. This installment analyzed each solution qualitatively for its pros and cons. In many cases of real life problems, “the best solution” that not only solves the current problem but also eliminates the any future occurrence of the same problem seldom exists. In developing a solution to a problem, 99 percent inventors must consider factors such as current applicability (FIG 2A), the difficulty of making such wholesale changes happen with his/her feeble financial power, and finally how they would make a profit from this invention. Based on our observation of how people use and store mugs, probably 2B and 2C may be the optimum solutions. Their manufacturing cost wouldn’t be substantial, and are applicable to today’s existing mugs. Production can be arranged in a small wood-working shop and marketing can be done through some wholesale outfits or online.

There can be more than one solution to a problem. It is important for 99 percent inventors not to get excited and proceed head on to a wring path. Analyze each solution. Think cool.

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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