Interview with Industrial Designer Jim Richardson

I was recently in Charlotte, North Carolina taping a 10 part mini-series on innovation that was sponsored by the United Inventors Association.  Each episode in the mini-series is 30 minutes long, and focuses on a different aspect of the inventor’s journey toward commericalizing innovation.  As a patent attorney I focus on the identification and protection of intellectual property assets, primarily in the form of patents.  A wide array of industry experts participated in this unique project, which will be released by the UIA sometime during the Spring of 2009.  One of the folks I met as a result of this project was James Richardson.  When I heard Jim speak about engineering, product development and manufacturing I knew right away I wanted to tap into his years of wisdom and bring it to readers.  What follows below is my interview with Jim.


For twenty-five years Jim Richardson served as president and head industrial designer for a new product development company, Richardson & Associates, Inc.  During that time he had his team of designers, engineers and electronic specialists created innovative new products for major corporations like Miller Brewing, Pepsico, Floorgraphics, Anheuser Busch, and ActMedia.  In 2000, Richardson relocated to the Seacoast area in Southern Maine where he now develops new products for individuals and corporate entities as a one-man new product development company. 

Jim is also available for speaking engagements, and having heard Jim speak on product design I can attest to his knowledge and breadth of experience.  So without further ado, here is the interview…


Thanks for agreeing to the interview Jim.  I am looking forward to bringing your knowledge to the pages of

 I am delighted to do the interview.

Lets start off basic.  Can you tell me what exactly does an industrial designer do to help inventors?

We take an idea, a concept, a sketch or a proof of concept prototype and give it form, structure and esthetics based on manufacturing techniques.

When looking over your website I see you did a beer keg project for Anheuser Busch.  Can you tell me a bit about that project?

The AB cooler technically was a satisfying project, but it just reinforces my belief that life is too short to do large corporation projects.  When we finally got the production order it was much smaller than originally expected and innumerably corporate sign-off delays squeezed the manufacturing timetable.  We got one season of production then the head of draft beer, who was the product champion, got promoted and the project became an orphan.  Oh well, It looks good on my resume.

It certainly does look good on your resume, and is an important lesson as to what can happen to any project when the champion leaves the scene. 

I also see from your website that you do modeling in 3D on the computer using Solidworks.  Why is it important to start with 3D modeling?

An E-drawing created by Jim using Solidworks.  Developed on spec for a buyer for Target.

Edrawing created by Jim using Solidworks. Developed on spec for a buyer for Target.

3 D modeling allows me to build the product as one part or an assembly of parts in the computer. 3 D modelling isn’t a picture or a graphic representation, it is the actual part built to exact scale inside the computer. You can link numerous parts together to form a product, these parts can articulate in the same manner as the finished product. It can have surface finish and color, and all of this can be sent to the client as an email attachment so the inventor can open up the file and the product can be rotated, viewed from all angles and zoomed into.

When everyone is satisfied with the final product I email the files to a service company and several days later the actual parts (as stereo lithography prototypes) arrive via FedEx.  I put them together, in some instance paint them, and there you have it, the finished product. It’s magic. 

Also, you have a photo realistic image of the product, which can be used in sales literature or market research. Remember, I have been an industrial designer long enough to have started with magic markers, drafting pencils and a drawing board. What used to take weeks now takes days, and the math is dead-on.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If anyone wants to send Jim an e-mail he is happy to send you a sample Edrawing, together with information on where to download a free Edrawing viewer. This will allow you to get a better feel for what an Edrawing is, and “the magic of Edrawings.”

What exactly is injection molding?  After the 3D rendering is complete do you then move on to injection molding?

The parts are designed using rules that have to be adhered to so that quality parts can be made by the injection molding process. The 3 D modelling program produces a file which is emailed to the injection molding toolmaker. These files are translated by the toolmaker’s program, and that program makes the core and cavity in the injection molding tool using computer controlled milling machines.  This allows injection molding tooling made anywhere in the world to be produced with great accuracy based on 3 D modelling.

I have heard you refer to low cost tooling.  Can you explain the basics of what this is and why it is important?

The molding tool is the set of steel blocks with ejection pins and cooling lines that is clamped to the injection-molding machine. The injection-molding machine injects molten plastic into the tool, which opens and closes during the molding cycle, producing the molded parts.

The core and cavity are the custom made part of the mold that is specific to the part being produced. These are the male and female shapes that are milled from the 3 D files. The spaces between the two shapes constitute the areas filled with plastic.

The production cost of an injection molded plastic part is based on the number of individual mold cavities (a male and female reproduction of the part) producing duplicate parts on the same molding machine at the same time. Duplicate cavities within the mold increase the cost of making the entire multi cavity mold, but decrease the cost of making the parts. The tool is typically made from hardened steel so that it can make millions of parts without wearing out.

In some instances it is good business sense to produce a lower cost tool and to accept the trade off of a higher production cost per part. One instance would be to produce sales samples, another instance would be to produce a part which has to be molded because of some physical characteristic that does not allow it to be prototyped by conventional means.

To make short run tooling a modified steel mold base is used. The mold base is the two steel blocks as described above with the cooling lines built in. These steel blocks of the mold base contain cavities that accept aluminum inserts that are the male/female shapes. These are relatively inexpensive to make and cost less that making a total tool in steel. The parts are expensive because a large molding machine is producing one part at a time. The advantage is that you get your molded parts for the test market without risking the cost of a production tool.

I understand that you work with manufacturers on behalf of your clients.  What is your opinion about overseas manufacturing?  At what point is it worthwhile to go overseas?

If you have a consumer product that is to sell in the big box stores, you need to have a production cost that is one fifth of the retail sales price. If the product has numerous parts that require assembly, unless that assembly can be automated you have to go overseas. If there is no assembly, or the part is big, look into have it made in the US. The cost of a container to the US is around $3,500.

If the market is specialized and you do not have to compete on price alone, there are a lot of advantages to having it made in the US. “Just in time” manufacturing with favorable payment terms is possible, and a lot of molders will package and drop ship. This saves money.

If an inventor were to ask you about rough estimates on pricing, what would you say?

I can make educated guesses, but you really have to design the product to understand how many parts and what is the best way to have it manufactured.  Then with the drawings and files it is possible to get real quotes.  If it is molded, I have software that can calculate molding costs based on some industry standard costs and rates.

I know you just participated in filming several segments in a 10 part min-series for independent inventors sponsored by the United Inventors Association.  How did you get involved with the UIA and what drew you to this project?

I had been involved with the Inventors Association of Connecticut since the early eighties and was its president for many years. I had a staffed product development office in Weston CT with corporate clients.  Since relocating to southern Maine I have been giving talks to inventor groups.  I try to avoid long and involved corporate projects and concentrate on providing a cost effective service for entrepreneurs and first time inventors.

I was mentioned by a member who attended my talk at Yankee Invention Expo. I gave my talk “Tools and methods of prototyping” in early November. I was impressed with the organization and was asked by Patrick Raymond (the Executive Director of the UIA) to attend the filming.

In your experience, what is the biggest mistake inventors make?

The inventor needs a patent to allow him to survive in the marketplace, but he should patent the embodiment of the product that is the most cost effective to manufacture. My advice is that the inventor has a professional search done and an opinion of patentability. This identifies any potential infringement issues and allows the designer, developer and inventor combination to steer clear of them. Quite often I have started with a crude prototype or patent drawings and have ended up with a better or more cost effective answer to the consumer need as identified by the original concept. This then requires additional cost to add these features to the original patent.

The other mistake is that many inventors have not researched the product category enough to identify those features that will make their product a unique selling proposition. There are very few truly new products, most are new and better variations on existing products.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to inventing what would it be?

Do your research; understand the market, spend money only to increase the certainty of success.


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of

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