Finding the Right Material for Your Invention

Posted ago by Baron

In the field of product development, it’s important to think of an invention not as an idea, but as a complete object: a physical solution with features, functions, price points, and of course, a material composition. Everything is made of something, so whether you’re designing a smartphone or a doorstop, the question “what’s it made of?” is bound to come up at some point.

Here at Quirky, the process of vetting materials is generally left up to Quirky’s design staff and community, so no individual should feel required to list materials in a submission. However, knowledge is power, and understanding what your product might be made of can offer a number of major advantages. Not only will it make your submission more robust, but it can offer solutions to problems that you’ve failed to address with design features. Bandora, Terra, and Sandables are all products that do this quite well, using material characteristics to drive innovation, rather than relying purely on visual design.

So how does one dive into materials without a degree in industrial design? Well, there are a number of free resources across the web, but one of our favorites is Materia, a Dutch materials database that offers an expansive library of textiles, metals and composites. While its attention to detail is impressive, Materia is accessible to even the most novice user, and since it’s absolutely free to use, it represents a great resource for amateurs who are just dipping their toes in the vast sea of materials science. Of course, every inventor will use such a resource differently, but here’s a basic breakdown to get you on your way:

When you head to the Materia homepage and elect to “start your search”, you’ll first be prompted to create an account. This is entirely free, and can be completed in a matter of minutes. Once you’ve set up your account, click on the “Materials” button in the left-hand sidebar to enter the material explorer (above). This robust search engine allows you to sort through Materia’s enormous library according to certain characteristics, ranging from fire resistance and hardness to more obscure traits like odor and glossiness. Select as few or as many as you’d like: while designers might search for materials with a very specific set of traits, most users should only fill out the most relevant fields, to avoid unnecessary specificity. For example, if UV resistance has no impact on the product you’re designing, you’re better off leaving that category blank. Once you’ve selected all of your desired traits, click “search” to conduct a blanket search of the database, or click one of the listed materials (e.g. Wood, Metals, Ceramics) to search within that category.

If your parameters are sound, the search should yield a selection of relevant materials, listing the name of each entry along with its manufacturer. Clicking on any material will take you to its profile (above), providing a full list of its characteristics, along with a short description of the material’s traits and potential applications. Easy as you like.

While Materia is a perfect place to kick off any materials search, it’s essential that your research not stop there. You may find a material with all the traits you’re looking for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for your product. Price, availability, and logistics all factor into the equation as well: it’s no use suggesting an experimental material if the cost would be astronomic, or if another company has exclusive rights to its use. Since Materia provides both the name and manufacturer of any material in its library, be sure to do some Google searching to find out how accessible the material is, and if possible, what it would cost. More information means fewer skeptics once the submission goes live, and in some cases, a better shot at making it to Eval.

Comments (16)

Great information - thanks for sharing! Another amazing information pool is Just in case someone hasn't heard of it...
Paul Patrocky
This is Awesome and helpful as materials matter, and if you understand what makes them unique you can find solutions for real problems..
Ruben Brito
Hey baron! I like this post a lot on it's own. That last sentence really bothers me though, because it seems contrary to the spirit of "Making Invention Accessible". I would think it would be better to spend time on finding a good problem versus getting the right materials for a solution that may never be chosen. Materials are a wonderful world on their own, but for every product I've seen chosen since I've been with Quirky in 2010, it hasn't been the materials, but the well thought out solution to a problem that got the idea selected. Materials along with design, and naming has been something suggested by QDS and voted for by the community since it's more likely to find material experts in QDS and more likely to gauge some sort of demand from the Quirky community. This isn't meant to be a one way blast, so I'd love to hear your feedback.
Really cool, thank you!
George Scott
Some good points and I like that site referenced. Thanks Baron, nice job.
Denyveaus Sells
Thanks Baron!
Materia is the bomb! So has Quirky sourced any materials out of Europe for specialized applications?
Baron Nagy
@Ruben: Good point! In this case, I think there's a big distinction between what's "required" and what's "helpful". A submission doesn't need an image to be selected at Eval, but that doesn't mean an image wouldn't improve its chances, by helping to convey the form and function of the product being pitched. Now, we wouldn't give an inventor brownie points simply for listing a material, but doing so can provide a more well-rounded image of what that product would be, and its potential applications. A good example of this is the Silicone keyboard case that was selected at last week's Eval: Marc didn't have to mention that it would be silicone, but doing so implies that it would be flexible, easy to clean and pleasant to touch, all of which add to the product's appeal.
Ruben Brito
Ok. I see your point. Good to explore what materials would be used at the very least.
Baron Nagy
That last sentence may have been a little misleading though, changed it up a bit :). Thanks for the heads up.
Ruben Brito
Yeah. I liked the site + post a lot. Thanks for the edit.
Freida Roberts
This is a good effort. It is nice to all these information here.
I love this - sometimes I wonder if certain things are possible - a nice resource to go to to answer my questions.
This is great information when you're thinking about developing a new product. Thank you for the reference!
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