Off the Wall
Mothers of Invention
In 1899, Charles H. Duell, then commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, offered a quote for the ages by prematurely declaring, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
More than 5 million patents later, Duell's shortsightedness seems glaring as the pace of invention has not diminished at all during the past century, but rather accelerated, in particular over the last 25 years. Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office receives more than 200,000 patent applications per year.
While many of those applications are filed on behalf of large corporations with dedicating research and development budgets, a good portion of them are filed by everyday working people. Many are professional tradesmen, just like the readers of this magazine, who, thanks to a flash of inspiration, discovered a new way to make their trade better.
Patenting and bringing a product to market requires a considerable amount of resources, not only time and money, but also personal attributes such as diligence and resourcefulness. Those who undertake the process are often plagued by anxiety and doubt, knowing that they are placing a substantial portion of themselves at risk. Some succeed. Some don't. However, those who persist are usually among those who win in the long run.
I recently talked with three such individuals, contractors by trade, who not only figured out a better way of doing things on the job, but also actually did something about it. Their stories serve as both an inspiration and reality check for anyone who thinks he or she has invented something new and hopes to bring it to market.
Knock on woodInspiration can come from anywhere. For Nick Berretta, of Memphis, Tenn., a building consultant and retired contractor, it came after he inadvertently knocked a tool through a deteriorated exterior wall.
Berretta had intended only to make some pilot holes for a moisture meter probe, but his mishap led him to discover a new way of measuring sheathing damage behind exterior cladding. His invention, called the Structural Resistance Tester, was a first for Berretta, who now has other patents pending. For Berretta, developing and bringing his innovation to market was a rewarding, but challenging, process.
¿I pretty much had an idea of what would be involved. I knew vaguely what I was going to get into,¿ Berretta noted. ¿Did I realize the paperwork or the horrors of the patent office? I knew the process. What I didn¿t realize was the personal wear and tear.¿
Berretta spent many a late night developing his idea into a working prototype.
¿If you¿re an obsessed worker, you have a lot of late nights and 20-hour days¿until you get it to the stage where you¿re satisfied,¿ he said.
Then came the challenging part. When Berretta presented his idea to potential manufacturers, their lack of enthusiasm made him realize that he would have to develop and bring his invention to market on his own.
¿It¿s bad enough to invent it, but then you¿ve got to go and be the pitchman,¿ noted Berretta.
While Berretta has enjoyed a modest degree of success in marketing his invention, his greatest satisfaction comes from knowing he has created¿and received credit for¿a new idea.
¿Once you¿ve received a patent, you can say you¿re part of an elite group,¿ he said. ¿It is a satisfying feeling knowing that you actually received a patent and didn¿t graduate from MIT.¿
However, Berretta¿s not done inventing just yet. His latest innovation is ¿Flash Pan,¿ a very novel approach to installing drainable flashing in existing construction. Its installation is achieved by drilling into the base windowsill and injecting a self-curing liquid plastic that fills the sill cavity. A drain inserted under the sill from the exterior lets excess plastic escape from the window pan, leaving behind a plastic shell that, once cured, catches and drains penetrating water from beneath the window.
Feed the needFor Wayne Fasske, of Southington, Conn., necessity proved to be the mother of invention. In October 1996, Fasske's company, Interior Builders, was starting its biggest job ever--the exterior and interior framing and buildout for a 1-million-square-foot mall in Waterbury, Conn.
"My goal was to find the most efficient way, any equipment, that could get me inside before winter," he recounted.
Fasske seized on the idea of obtaining a stud shear, which could speed the process of cutting framing members to size.
"We were cutting with chop saws or plasma torches," said Fasske. "I had it in my mind that someone had to have come up with a mobile stud shear. I went to METALCON and spent three days in Chicago and found it didn't exist. I knew what I wanted in my mind, but I couldn't buy it."
Not to be deterred, Fasske set about building his own. With the aid of a machinist friend, who gave Fasske an old 20-ton press, the contractor fashioned a hydraulic shear and put it to use on the job site. Weighing more than a ton and limited to straight cuts, that first ungainly prototype quickly proved its worth to Fasske.
"It turned out to be more successful on my job site than I ever imagined," he said. "That same shear is still being used on the job site, and it's got well over 80,000 cuts on the blade."
Realizing the potential value of his creation, Fasske initiated a patent search as a precursor to patenting and further developing the shear.
"The most stressful time was waiting for the patent search," he said. "There was a lot of anxiety up until we actually got through the search. We kept thinking that someone else had already come up with it."
Once the patent search came back favorably, Fasske decided to commit the time and resources to refining and patenting his invention.
"I worked on the stud chopper mostly at night," he said. "It just became one of those obsessions."
While the initial prototype ran on 220 voltage, Fasske's refined stud chopper is driven by a gasoline engine. The blade has been modified to perform angle cuts, and the entire unit was reconfigured to fit in a foldout gang box that is easily moved about the job site.
"When all is said and done, it's a simple product," said Fasske. "Basically, I was a contractor with a need. I do believe if I hadn't done it, somebody else would have done it."
Tape onFor Jeff Denkins, a Kaukauna, Wis., drywall contractor and the co-founder of Apla-Tech, the development of a new generation of drywall finishing tools began as a straightforward project that quickly took on a life of its own.
Five years ago, Denkins was approached by a drywall tape manufacturer to create a taping tool for a new type of tape. While the tape never made it to market, Denkins' tape applicator--the Apla Taper--proved to be an advantageous tool for applying mesh tape. That led Denkins to pursue the development of a user-friendly finishing system for both fiberglass and paper tape.
For Denkins, who now holds four patents with others pending, the development of Apla-Tech's line of pneumatically driven finishing tools has been a rewarding but challenging experience.
"The fun part of this is the new product development," said Denkins. "It's an interesting process, the enjoyment of getting an idea and following it through. It's a hit-and-miss process, but if you remember what you learned, the process gets easier."
However, the biggest challenge for Denkins was getting his refined inventions to market. While Denkins did not set out to become a tool manufacturer, the successive development of new products thrust him into that role. While continuing to operate his drywall business, Denkins set up a new company to manufacture and market his line of tools. Both the financial and personal investment required to get the company off the ground proved to be particularly stressful for Denkins.
"I think over a period of two years, 90 percent of my nights were sleepless nights," said Denkins.
Through both perseverance and providence, Denkins has been able to establish Apla-Tech as a recognized manufacturer of innovative finishing tools. In the process, Denkins' experiences have brought about a change in the way he looks at new challenges.
"I used to accept things the way they were," he said. "Now my thought of the matter is, if nobody's made it, it's simply because nobody's tried making it. It's just a matter of figuring out how you're going to do it."