We take the simplest devices for granted in our modern, technologically advanced world. We open a tap and water comes out, hot, warm and cold. We hit a wall switch and the darkness is overcome by the light. We open the refrigerator door and look into a compartment containing climate-controlled stored food. These conveniences are ubiquitous in the developed world in the early 21st century.
And yet we give little thought to the simplest and most important inventions that make all product forms possible. Consider the humble screw. Yes, the little hold-down vehicle that is ubiquitous in every do-it-yourself toolbox before packing or in the kitchen drawer. The ability to join two opposing elements or surfaces and ensure that they are permanently joined is essential to the structural integrity of virtually all non-consumable products we use today.
No one knows who invented the screw. We know that wood screws were used during the time of Christ. They were widely used in the Middle East for pressing grapes for wine, olive oil production, and woodworking. The applicable uses of screws did not change much until the 18th century. The Englishman James Ramsden invented the first “screw cutting lathe” to mass produce steel screws in 1770. This advance made screws more economical and their use in industrialization processes began to increase exponentially.
In the 1930s, Henry Philips, in response to the automotive industry’s growing need for tighter tolerances, invented the Philips head screw. This square head screw was a significant advance as it allowed machine tools to apply more torque to the screw head, thus providing a much tighter fit and finish between the joined parts.
Billions of screws are used each year in millions of applications. Screws of all sizes and metal composition are essential for all the products we manufacture. As useful and universal as the common screw in our lives is, we never really reflect on its importance, its efficiency, its economy, and what the world would be like without these ingenious little connecting devices.
Here is a contemporary lesson. The simple screw has made life easier and more comfortable for all consumers. Jobs are created to produce bolts, distribute bolts, and use bolts. Prosperity is enhanced by the usefulness of this simple invention.
Many entrepreneurs and inventors seek to improve life and profit commercially by creating innovative new products. The lesson we can all learn from the commoner screw is that sometimes the most valuable and useful concepts are the simplest. You don’t have to reinvent the transistor or discover a new water desalination system to profit. Examining your work, family or play universe and finding a simple improvement that benefits consumers is the easiest path to business success.
At my consumer product development and marketing consulting company, we review hundreds of product introductions each year. The best, the most commercial are inevitably the simplest. They offer the greatest utility for the greatest number of consumers. These concepts generally do not require reeducation of the consumer, which can be a difficult and expensive proposition.
So keep it simple and apply the simple “screw” test to determine simplicity, ease, cost-effectiveness, and applicability. This is a wonderful template that can be transferred from an old product to modern inventions to determine the prospects for success.