Product Development
Getting new products to market quickly

Rapid prototyping

The position of market leader

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For nine years, Howard Lind and Avi Telyas have owned a small company that produces gear boxes for automated equipment. Historically, when a new gear was designed, product engineers would draft a design on paper, which they'd use to generate a two-dimensional computer model. A programmer would then be called in to write the computer code needed to translate the two-dimensional picture into a three-dimensional gear. The software would tell the machinery how to cut the aluminum to generate the finished product. And the process could take months -- or even a year -- of dedicated work.

But when the pair started a second company to service fad-oriented retailers, they realized they didn't have months, and certainly not a year, to get their snazzy new products in front of customers. Their solution: rapid prototyping.

In 1993 Lind and Telyas founded BrainWorks Inc., a $4-million company in Port Washington, N.Y., that manufactures colorful computer accessories for children -- keyboards, mice, and monitor masks, for example. They obtained licenses to use trademarked characters and designs from The Flintstones and Star Trek, and the cable channel Nickelodeon -- to make such accessories as a computer mouse in the shape of a Star Trek phaser and a disk holder in the shape of Fred Flintstone's car.

To get their products to market quickly, the company produces three-dimensional computer models on DEC Alpha Workstations, which run Pro/Engineer software (Parametric Technology; $20,000; 617-398-5164). The electronic models are then sent to Santin Engineering, in Peabody, Mass. Within 8 or 10 hours, plastic models are created using a process called stereolithography.

The high-tech procedure, which can cost up to $10,000 a model, involves firing a laser at liquefied plastic to make solid molded prototypes. But Lind says the price isn't exorbitant because of the amount of time it saves.

BrainWorks then saves even more time because it doesn't have to send the plastic prototypes to the machinists who create the steel tools for manufacturing the products. Instead, toolmakers in Taiwan use the three-dimensional computer models, which the company sends over the Internet. "We don't need a ton of computer stuff, and yet we've got the product-design capabilities of a Mattel toy company," says Lind.

BrainWorks got a jump on the competition and easily secured the role of market leader in a highly specialized niche. And when Disney recently decided to lend many of its trademarks to computer accessories, it approached BrainWorks, which still has no direct competition. Lind doesn't anticipate that any other company will have comparable products for another six months.

Lind and Telyas keep driving the company forward as fast as they can. With new licenses to use Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, and Star Wars trademarks, they hope to introduce a new line of products this year. "That's the trick," says Lind. "By the time someone else gets to where you are, you're already gone."

-- Joshua Macht