“Frankenstein Prototyping” and the Universe as a Collection of Parts

May is National Inventors Month. This got me thinking about one of my all-time favorite ideas related to invention and prototyping. I tell the story in my latest book, Tips and Tales from the Workshop, Volume 2:

The Universe Is A Collection of Parts

I met an inventor once named Perry Kaye. He had a brilliant approach to prototyping. He didn’t try to reinvent the wheel – he used existing wheels from something else! He called this approach “Frankenstein prototyping.” When Perry came up with a new idea, rather than going the conventional route of drawing up plans and paying a rapid prototyping service or someone else to fabricate it, he’d just head to Home Depot, toy stores, and the local hardware store. He’d find the parts he needed on existing products (a handle here, a type of blade there, this motor, that gearbox). Then, he’d cut up these existing products and stitch them together into his new monster creation.

This is an incredibly powerful perceptual shift -— to see the physical world around you as a collection of parts that are currently in one configuration, but are just waiting to be taken apart and recombined into something new. Especially with today’s 3D printers and cutters, high-performance adhesives and other materials, there are so many cheap components readily available.

Besides saving time and money, there’s an added benefit. When you’ve spent so much time, money, and effort prototyping an idea, you become literally invested in making it work, even if it doesn’t. But when you’ve only invested an afternoon and a few bucks on a Frankenstein prototype, you’re more likely to salvage whichever parts you can, and move on to the next iteration. This method of rendering your ideas allows you to iterate quickly and gets you to a smarter, more viable design much faster.

Of course, you don’t need to be an inventor in the classic sense to benefit from this way of looking at the world. You can make one-off creations with this method, or solve vexing design problems on existing projects. We have this perceptual blindness where we tend to see things as they are rather than the potential for what else they can become. Frankenstein prototyping is a way of training oneself to see that potential.

[Photo by Bruno Guerrero on Unsplash]

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