Old World Inventing in the 21st Century

Joel Marks is the lead inventor for WorkTools, Inc. He has over 75 US patents in his name and is the creator of PowerShot "forward-action" staple guns, Gator-Grip universal sockets, PaperPro desktop staplers and much more. Joel develops his inventions like an old world craftsman coupled with a zen master. He touches and feels with both his hands and his mind. He understands how a spring feels as it compresses and releases, from both the perspective of a user working a spring-powered device and from the perspective of the spring itself.

Joel recently put down some thoughts on his methodology:

Everything today is analytized, quantified and digitized. There are few if any formal disciplines that teach about devices that are held and powered by hand. There's probably no formal way to do it. I think it is best taught by an old fashioned apprenticeship. One prerequisite is an inherent feel for 3D space. This allows a developer to work intuitively and skip formal analysis of simple mechanisms. I've worked with engineers who have rational calculations but don't have rational solutions. They often miss something basic - such as the need to minimize sliding and/or keep net forces in the direction of motion where that is possible.

The development of small hand held devices benefits from a holistic effort where the industrial design and mechanical means are developed at the same time, and if possible, by the same person or team. Our newer products have all been done this way. In this way we try to have the outer features all relate at least in some way to what goes on inside. This method seems impossible in the large companies I've worked with because it conflicts with their management structures and lines of responsibility. It would be neat to know of large companies that work differently and enable holistic development.

A related philosophy is keeping all mechanisms compact as possible. Every one of my tool devices has this goal built in. This requires much effort and is not common thinking in my experience in this field. Among other things compactness forces the most direct force path. It also ensures that a comfortable hand tool or device can result. This is especially important if the engineer is working with an outside design group. I have found that it is common that industrial designers make things bigger to add shape features. If you start with a small mechanism the engineer can hope it won't become too large in the end. The Powershot staple gun is a good example of big; the designers made it huge even though it had a reasonably compact mechanism to start.

Another important discipline is working with your hands. This may be the thing that most sets my working style apart from the modern way. In a manner of 100 years ago I can manually build complete working models in the planned shape of most of the products we have done. This has taught me to be sensitive to reality, something for which the computer is especially ill suited. I do less total hand work these days but still work by hand to change prototypes quickly. In particular it is possible to hand weld plastic molded parts to build, add, change or fix things immediately on the real material sample almost like working with clay. Once the sample works I know what change to do on the CAD. Another detail for example is soldering zinc, an important activity when the product sample is die cast zinc. I spent one entire summer developing an ability to do my own Zn prototype casting. An early PowerShot prototype was made this way, it was quite compact although not a market ready form. I would not recommend this process but I learned a lot

Joel Marks with SqueezeDriver

Joel Marks in 1988 with his first invention, the SqueezeDriver.

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by: Rafik Nasseur