I haven't always been kind to inventors. I've accused them of being long on ideas and short on cash, which continues to be the case. And I've warned molders to beware of inventors bearing strange boxes and nondisclosure agreements. But every now and then, an inventor catches my eye and I feel sorry that the industry has to take such a hard stand. Take Earl Powell, for example. He's a hard-working sort living in the ``grain belt'' who's had an idea cooking for several decades.
In retirement, he's had time to develop and patent his idea, called Max Buffetware, through a company he created, B-Max Co. His multiple-plate, interlocking design allows the user to hold plates and cup in one hand, freeing the other to dish up food at a buffet. Earl thinks his idea beats trying to pile food onto flimsy paper plates-and his own, amateur market research bears that out.
He's received validation of his idea from several housewares manufacturers, and even from one retired executive of a housewares company who was impressed with Earl's ingenuity. But no takers.He has gone to molders and had the door slammed in his face there also. I can't blame the molders. Earl is like many inventors. He has the idea but not the money to build the molds, market and distribute Max Buffetware. And that's the catch. Molders and mold makers have been burned by ``good ideas'' too many times.
Earl's letter to me reflects much of the frustration he's feeling about the marketplace today. In a telephone conversation, Earl blamed several factors for his failure to attract a manufacturer.
``The supergiants of retailing demand that even little manufacturers produce huge amounts of product to service their inventory,'' Earl said. ``Small manufacturers don't dare risk it.''
Ads in the Wall Street Journal and Plastics News have produced some tire-kickers, but no takers.
``We're 180 degrees from where we used to be in this country,'' Earl laments. ``It used to be the U.S. created the good ideas and the Asians copied us. Now, it's the Asians that go for the new products and we copy them.''
Out of desperation, Earl said his last hope is to give his product idea to a Chinese company, then hope he gets a pittance in royalties. It is something he regrets having to do, but so far, it's the only offer he's had.
``You just can't get from here to there in this country anymore,'' said Earl. ``That's the plight of we inventors.''
And so good ideas languish, and inventors like Earl pay the price of other good ideas gone bad, with molders left holding the bag.
Goldsberry is a Plastics News correspondent based in Phoenix.