In an upstairs room in an old brick building on the industrial outskirts of this intellectual town, a tall table stands cluttered with people's ideas from years past: a "lamp commander" that turns lamps on and off with voice commands (no clapping necessary); a remote-control buoy light that turns on from 100 feet away; and an electronic card scanner developed in the early 1980s.
In their day, no one had heard of these products. But somebody wanted one and found a company - Arthur D. Little - willing to build them for him. "You think of something that solves a problem, and we figure out how to make it,"says Craig Carlson, director of new business development at ADL.
Such "invention nurseries" are the pinnacle of personal customization. They mainly serve the needs of inventors and businesses that want to outsource research and development. But for individuals with the means to pay their rates, they can build virtually any product, says Leonard Hofheins, CEO of Design Partners, an invention nursery in Concord, Calif.
He recalls a Pacific Bell executive who paid Design Partners $10,000 to develop a device that seals hair braids, for her own use, though she may also develop it commercially.
"Sure, you can build things on a one-off basis, but it's very expensive, because we don't have any economies of scale," Mr. Hofheins says.
Another wealthy man hired Design Partners to build a smart telephone with video and voice-over technology. "It was his brainchild, but he didn't have the knowledge to finish it," says Mr. Hofheins.
Using rapid-prototyping machinery, invention nurseries can build individual plastic and metal parts without the special tooling that factories require. While the machines create too much waste and work too slowly for mass production, they are perfect for prototypes.
Down the hall from the old inventions at ADL are new projects: a rack of steel girders fills a room and frames an electromagnetic field for precisely positioning devices.
In a cluttered basement lab, a prototyping machine grinds out a stovetop from a solid billet of aluminum.
In another lab down the hall, a scroll compressor whirs noisily at 4,000 revolutions per minute on a test bench.
Many of these inventions are originally conceived by professional inventors, who come to invention nurseries when they lack knowledge or equipment to bring their ideas to fruition.
How much it costs depends on the idea and the invention nursery developing it.
Design Partners in California is a "fee-for-services company," charging by the hour.
ADL typically keeps 50 percent of licensing revenue for products it helps develop.
In exchange, it puts up all the front money for research and development, patent filing, and building a prototype, which together run about $250,000, Mr. Carlson says.
As for future business, invention nurseries expect to build more custom products for wealthy consumers, says Carlson.
The reason is twofold, the experts say:
*Computer technology - computer-aided design, drafting, and 3-D modeling software, and computer-controlled prototyping machines - has brought down the cost of building prototypes.
*Today's "trickle-up" economy has produced an unprecedented number of millionaires who can afford to have products custom made.
"We're seeing a concentration of wealth in this country like the world has never seen," says Watts Wacker, a futurist with SRI International.
That growing wealth, along with mass-customization technology, will bring growing demand for customized products, he says, because the wealthy prize "the power of one of a kind."
Labs and shops that build one-of-a-kind pieces aren't new, of course.
Restoration shops for antique machinery and even buildings have long needed to re-create parts that no longer exist.
And the wealthy have always sought out craftsmen to make custom goods.
Only now these craftsmen can build everything from integrated circuits to home appliance machinery, says Hofheins.
"Anything one can imagine can be done," says Richard Pavelle of Invent Resources "as long as it doesn't violate the laws of physics."
The only question is "How much does it cost?"
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society