Lessons from a broken light bulb

Clever ideas for new products can come unexpectedly, but there are few truly new ideas under the sun.

Feb 1st, 2005

Clever ideas for new products can come unexpectedly, but there are few truly new ideas under the sun.

We were 30 miles from where we were going when I first thought of the idea. It started after Judy Leger, our intrepid sales representative, decided that we should go on another trip to visit several companies in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

We were on the road again-off to visit OEM companies to see how they could help you, our readers, develop products that are better, more reliable, and longer lasting. After driving many hours though sleet and snow, we ended up in Philadelphia, PA. As Judy locked down the trusty Toyota SUV, I noticed that something was wrong. One of the rear left lights wasn’t working. As Bruce Springsteen said, “Everything dies, that’s a fact.” But I wasn’t really thinking of him at the time, standing in the streets of Philadelphia. The broken bulb would have to wait.

The next day, after a very productive visit learning all about infrared devices and systems, there was some time before our next appointment. I suggested looking for a garage to solve our illumination problem. After driving a few miles, we came across a small establishment. I went inside, obtained the necessary Phillips screwdriver, and took apart the rear lamp housing. It was there I found the culprit-a burnt-out dual-filament incandescent bulb manufactured by Koito Manufacturing Co. (Tokyo, Japan; www.koito.co.jp).

I went back into the garage and found a replacement, plugged it in, and replaced the housing. Off we went down the road with me clutching the broken bulb.

Koito’s bulb had a novel design. The dual power-supply rails for both filaments were mounted in an in-line fashion, with one filament atop the other. Upon examining the bulb, it appeared that only the indicator filament had burnt out. Thus, while the rear light still worked, the indicator had failed. Certainly, the chaps at Koito knew what they were doing when they produced this product.

Although the product was now useless, it was an elegant example of a simple form of Boolean logic. One terminal was off, the other on. And, in fact, this was the very idea that led to the development of programmable array logic, in which devices are programmed by blowing the fuses that link them permanently using an overvoltage. But the idea of the dual filaments was even more interesting. What would happen if one, two, three or more filaments could be mounted in the same lamp or, rather than filaments, light-emitting diodes (LEDs)?

Imagine a device with three or more LEDs mounted in the same lamp. The possibilities would be endless. You could build a full-color LED from red, green, and blue devices. Four red LEDs mounted in such a way could, if driven with the proper current source, increase the strobe time of LED illumination by four times. Using the parts in a redundant backup mode would lead to more than 400,000 hours mean time between failure. Even Judy was excited!

This is the stuff that patents are made of, and so I drew a few simple sketches on the way to our next appointment at a highly reputable component manufacturer. What better company, I thought, with which to sound out my brilliant idea. Immediately after entering the building I showed the idea to one of the product-line managers.

It was a bit like interviewing a politician. After a few “no comments,” he said I would have to broach the subject with the company president. After he arrived, I once again excitedly explained my rough drawings and how I thought the idea would make me a fortune. But, like the product-line manager, the president simply smiled and said that he could not discuss the matter.

It was all rather frustrating. As we left, I turned to the president and again remarked how talented I thought I had been with the invention. “Just wait until January,” he said and smiled. “Then you can read my patent.” As Springsteen said, sometimes you get to a point where you feel like Santa Claus at the North Pole.

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