So the proverbial light bulb in your head flashes one day and you have a brilliant idea! You think you stumbled upon an idea so fantastic that you will be swimming in the Benjamin's before you know it. But then you wonder, now what do I do?
This is actually a very common situation for most inventors. It is extremely rare when an inventor knows exactly what to do next. Of course the first thing you should do is to scrounge up $10,000 dollars from family and friends and run to the nearest patent attorney to get a patent, as surely that will bring in the money. Wrong! Contrary to my desire to retain your services, the first thing you should do is not talk to a patent attorney... at least not yet.
When you have an idea, spend some time on the internet searching for your idea. Odds are actually high that you will in fact find your invention already out there in the marketplace. I am not only a patent attorney, but I am also an inventor as well. I would say that a large majority of the ideas I come up with have already been thought of, and many are actual products already in the marketplace!
If you search and find your invention, don't be discouraged but rather be encouraged! Wait, why would I be encouraged if I found my great idea already in the stores? Because your idea was so good, that someone else took the time to invest the money and bring that product to market. What it means is that your idea was pretty good to start with. Your creative juices produced a good product, and if you did it once you can do it again.
You should also search through the United States Patent and Trademark database at http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-adv.htm. Spend some time getting familiar with how to search for a patent and see what you can find on your own. Depending on what you find, you can reevaluate whether you still want to pursue your idea. The good part is that you have spent no money on your idea at this point.
If you decide to continue on, then you should start documenting your work in a bound journal. Every time you do something, write it down in your journal. The United States uses a first-to-invent system, so the journal is evidence of when you actually thought of your idea. Inventors love to mail themselves unopened letters, but skip this as the bound journal is significantly better evidence. Every few weeks have someone else review your notebook and date and sign it. One time I used as evidence a brown paper towel an inventor had sketched his initial design upon, as the inventor was savvy enough to sign and date the sketch. Alternatively, document your idea via email and send a colleague a description. Emails have time stamps of when they were sent. Have your colleague recognize that he read and understood your invention and email you back.
You should also attempt to prototype your invention, if your invention is the type that can be prototyped. There is a huge multitude of information learned from prototyping your product. This information is critical for including in the patent. It is extremely rare that the first design will work as you anticipated. When testing a product, other inventive aspects will come out of the prototyping process. All of these features can and should go into the patent to make a better patent.
Most inventors are not engineers, but you don't need to be. You should try to prototype your product anyways. Use anything you can find or know how to use. While I am also a mechanical engineer, most of the techniques I use for prototyping I learned on my own through trial and error. I hand fabricate a large majority of my own inventions with common tools found in a garage. No matter how bad you think you are going to be at prototyping, you will learn something valuable which makes the product better. It is amazing how the prototyping process substantially refines the product. In fact, I expect the first five to ten versions of something I build to fail. Sometimes only one aspect works, but that is something to build upon. Sometimes a prototype takes two steps back, but again I am learning something. A prototype will not only flush out critical aspects of the design resulting in a better patent, but if you have any hopes of licensing your product almost all manufacturers expect to see a functioning prototype. If you walk into pitch a product to a potential manufacturer without a prototype, your chances are dramatically lower of getting a deal done.
You should also make a realistic determination of the cost to produce your product and also what is a realistic price for your product. Don't guess at these figures, find manufacturers and build a quote total. Also factor in labor, packaging, shipping, product liability insurance and about an 8% loss on returns and other variables. Remember that to make money your retail price is typically 3 to 5 times what just your production costs will be. If possible, when you design your product attempt to go after the largest market possible. A product that can be sold to every man and woman will make you more money that a product aimed at a select demographic.
When you have analyzed all these factors and fabricated a relatively decent prototype and decided you want to pursue your idea further then it is time to talk to a patent attorney. Remember, to be successful selling a product you do not need patent protection. In fact, most products sold today are not protected by a patent. However, if you have a hit product that is truly novel a patent can help you secure the most profits throughout the 20 year life of the patent. Patents are only valuable when they are backing up a product which actually sells. Patents are worthless if no one wants to buy the product they are protecting.
Hopefully this brief introduction was helpful in guiding you how to pursue your invention. Feel free to contact me with further questions.