You are working on a new design and want to incorporate a new component or need a unique part; A part requiring outside design and fabrication expertise, a keystone part, a part that can break a design log jam. 

You need THE THING!

How to find ‘The Thing’? You have looked everywhere. You scoured the internet, you looked in your junk drawer, you dug a hole in the ground… And quickly filled it back in when your neighbor started dialing the police. Nothing.

As a last-ditch effort, you make an unholy bargain with a clever imp creature* to turn straw into ‘The Thing’. Suddenly he wants your first patent, all royalties, and a 83% stake in the company and, unless you can name what ‘The Thing’ is, you are in a real bind. You better find the name of ‘The Thing’ quick so you can get your ‘The Thing’ and keep your IP and income intact.

Step 1. Determine the Industry Standard Name(s) / Defeat The Imp

When it comes to mechanical components, there is a lot of jargon. As you get into specific sub-genres, they each have even more of their own jargon. Levels upon levels of jargon. And a lot of jargon is not logical, it is derived from the slang of occupational trades and languages.

It’s like when you’re hanging out with an imp and it’s all like, “I’ll splinter your skindles and shear your sheep silly, should you not guess the name!” and you’re all like, what the heck are you even talking about? The benefit of jargon is specificity, when there is a one-word (or string of words) to describe a thing then there is no ambiguity about the thing in question. 

So, to find ‘The Thing’, you need to find the industry jargon name. Start straightforwardly, by thinking of a generic name you think best describes the item. This could be a description of what it looks like or what it does. “It’s like a this but this.”  Then begin testing your hypothesis. 

Perform a test by doing a Google image search using your first guess description/name.  If almost all the images are of the thing you are looking for, JACKPOT, you just hit pay dirt.  However, If only a smattering of the images is of the thing, then you found an incorrect term that happens to be a good enough incorrect term that others also thought of it. 

When you find an image that matches the thing you are looking for, follow the image link to its page. This may lead to forums, resellers and personal pages using an incorrect layman’s term and not the industry-standard term. 

The intermediate goal is to find a manufacturer’s webpage for the thing. Manufacturers are entrenched in their specific industry and therefore use the appropriate terminology.

There are a couple of paths to get here.

Path one is using part numbers. Manufacturer’s part numbers can often be found listed on resellers’ pages which can then be used as a bread crumb trail back to the manufacturer. 

Path two is through branding. It can be as simple as seeing the manufacturer’s name printed directly on the item, documentation, or marketing material or more indirect like trying to link a logo to the company.

Going through this exercise may have you feeling like a lead MI5 agent – zooming in on high-res images, cross-referencing terminology, using search and site filters like no one has used them… at least, in the last 15 minutes.

Some retailers, like McMaster-Carr, purposefully hide the manufacturer’s identifying information to limit circumvention. They couldn’t have you going direct to the source now, could they? However, we’ll get you there and, once you’re on the manufacturer’s website, it will be evident – the thing’s name should be easily associated with the thing on a retailer’s listing or associated product categories.  Do a final check, plug that name back into a Google image search, and see the results – you should see a wider variety of images, retailers and possibly other manufacturers.

Quick recap: product name guess –> product pictures –> retailer listing –> product clues –> manufacturers

Step 2: Getting Your Thing / Living the Fairytale

Congratulations, you beat the imp! You found the industry standard name for ‘The Thing’.  Is the name anything like what you expected? Are you wondering what kind of spoiled seafood someone had eaten to think that was an even remotely reasonable name (Answer: squid)?

Now that you found the key, it’s time to start opening doors and acquiring the specific version/subset of your thing. Plug your thing’s name into a generic search engine, like Google.  Sometimes, with the right term in your back pocket, the thing is now ripe for the plucking and that’s the end of your journey. Other times, finding the source is the first of your trials and getting the thing is another saga.

The more specialized the industry and application, the trickier it can be to get the version of the thing you need for the intended application. For that matter, it can be hard to get any version whatsoever.  There may be only a few small companies that make it to order or in the production-sized quantities you need. I have resorted to everything from requesting a loaner to buying a used version on eBay.

Be prepared to modify and hack current offerings to get them to a state to integrate and validate in your design. Then ride proudly into town pulling wagon carts weighed down with the vanquished prize and treasure chests full of your shimmering thing! Queue the trumpets and live happily ever after.

Let’s Do a Test

I have recently wanted to get a super cool hat that will let me fly around. My first guess for a name is, “colorful flying hat”.

You can see from the google images search that I found some ok results for what I am looking for but mostly they aren’t matches.  “Colorful flying hat” isn’t the name of what I’m after. The first link to looks promising. I’ll go there to see what I can find.

Okay. I found a website that sells the item I am looking for. This looks like a good spot to do some digging and see what information I can find.

Scrolling and reading down the page I come across some information that looks promising. Bingo! I’ll do another image search for “propeller hat” to confirm what I found. BOOM. All the images are exactly what I was looking for.  I found my thing! Now, I can expand my search from there to zero in on the style, quantity, and price I need.

The Secret: AliExpress

But wait, there’s more! Let’s try searching on AliExpress to see what kind of pricing is available. You’ll notice a lot of search options and filters – I recommend checking ‘Free Shipping’, ‘Free Return’, ‘4 star and up’, sorted by most ‘Orders’ and then your preferred ‘Ship from’ (United States, China, etc). Note: that search criteria is pretty tight but you can start loosening up the requirements from there.

Quite a range! All the way down to $1.91 a pop. Wow! Our energy and transportation problems are solved. We now have a bunch of options. We can start optimizing for price and shipping, or contact the manufacturer about customization, quanitites or whatever we may need.

With my new hat, I’ll now be able to stroll around more proud and confident.  And, with my foolproof system, you can too!

* Yeah, yeah, yeah. This ‘imp creature’ sounds a lot like Rumpelstiltskin. Well, ok, it may have served as a wee amount of inspriation.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.