TITUSVILLE, Fla. (Sept. 20, 2005) – Inventive inspiration can strike anywhere, even at a birthday party buffet.
As Mark Donche watched friends fill and then struggle to balance their plates, he thought that there ought to be a device that would allow diners to easily carry their plates, food, silverware and drinks all at once.
Within a few minutes, Donche, a civilian employee at Patrick Air Force Base, envisioned the basic design for such a product. After working on the design for a few years, Donche’s “Little Buddy”®, took final form: a durable, dishwasher-safe plastic plate with individual food compartments and a bowl-shape to prevent spills; a center opening for a can, bottle or glass; a gripper to hold utensils; and supports to keep the plate from sliding in the hand.
“It’s perfect for buffets, tailgating, trips to the beach, pool parties – any type of casual dining,” Donche said. The plates are now available in sets of six on a Web site for innovative home and entertaining products.
Although his product was on the market, Donche realized that additional opportunities would open to Little Buddy if he could print artwork on the plates. Football fans and tailgaters, for example, would be interested in Little Buddies imprinted with their team’s logo. As Donche researched printing methods, he determined that ink sublimation would produce the desired effect. However, because of the plate’s unique curved shape, no commercially available ink sublimation processes would work.
After hearing about the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP), Donche decided to ask the program for help. Operated by the Technological Research and Development Authority (TRDA), SATOP provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through the expertise of its Alliance Partners: 50 aerospace companies and universities involved in the U.S. Space Program.
Donche’s Request for Technical Assistance (RTA), was paired with Ernie Banks, a veteran engineer with The Boeing Company at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Banks has been at KSC for more than 30 years and his experience in performing vacuum bonding different materials on the Space Station and Shuttle Orbiter made him the logical choice to recommend a solution to the Little Buddy challenge.
“When flight hardware needs to have heat or heat and pressure to a laminate material, we have to find a heater method that could be used on odd shapes. We commonly bond irregular shapes, so we started using flexible heaters fabricated with silicone rubber,” Banks said. “This seemed to be exactly what Mark was having trouble finding. I researched suppliers of the flexible silicone heater strips that are commonly used in the Space Industry and gave that information to Mark.”
Banks’ recommended two companies that make flexible heaters, one of which is located in Orlando. This new information will now allow Donche to move forward with plans for the imprinted Little Buddies, which he hopes to have available by the end of 2005. He says that after years of product development, SATOP’s help has been refreshingly fruitful.
“Three years ago, I had to decide if I was going to seriously pursue development of the Little Buddy,” Donche said. “It’s been a lot of hard work and a real learning process. One of the happiest lessons I’ve learned has been that SATOP is there to help small business people like me.”