Doug Kielian watched his neighbor’s kids splashing in their pool on a hot summer day, fondly remembering the carefree days of his youth when he also had a full schedule of fun on his calendar. He observed them reaching for a beach ball that floated in the water but having no success as their hands slipped and the ball simply spun in place. And that’s when the lightning bolt struck him.
No, it wasn’t a real lighting bolt, rather an idea for a piece of equipment that would make his passion, automobile restoration, much easier to perform.
On a Roll
Kielian has always used restoration to keep his guys busy at his body shop, Auto Kraft in Lincoln, Neb. But the problem, he says, is that most of his technicians considered working on a rusty old vehicle that required them to get in awkward positions “yucky” and undesirable. But if you could put the vehicle on a spit and spin it with the flick of a wrist, he thought, then you would have something.
That sort of invention might sound like the well-known rotisserie, but Kielian had a much better idea. A typical rotisserie supports a vehicle on its very ends, which puts a tremendous amount of strain on the body shell. On his machine, the car would be mounted in-board where the suspension normally mounts, decreasing the distance between the support structures.
The vision of the beach ball helped Kielian realize that he would have to spin a car with a rolling mechanism located on the floor. That’s when he came up with the idea of a round circle to mount the car in – specifically, two round hoops parallel to each other and a base to support it all.
“On Nov. 15, 2005, I spun that first prototype I built, and within the first revolution I smiled and said to myself, ‘My world has just changed,’” said Kielian. “I couldn’t sleep or do anything because I knew the rest of my life was destined to work on cars and be a restoration/collision/auto body shop owner. There was no stopping my idea, and I had to get it out of my head.”
Kielian ended up building four more prototypes before being satisfied that his machine worked perfectly, was affordable to build and, finally, affordable to re-market. Affordability was the reason he ignored one friend’s comment that he should put a motor on it.
At his first trade show, Kielian says the response was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, a lot of people told him he was a genius and that it was good to see American ingenuity at work, but Kielian doesn’t believe he’s any smarter than anyone else.
“I’m no genius, I’m just an average guy,” he said. “The caveman was the genius. He invented the wheel. I just applied it to collision.”
Kielian never had aspirations to make millions of dollars with his Roller Hoop. The market is too limited to do that, he says. He simply wanted “to save the old classic car industry for us old gearheads and make restoration more efficient and more enjoyable.”
So far, he has sold 26 Roller Hoops in the United States, priced at $1,995 apiece. He even managed to score some nice publicity with an appearance on Horsepower TV as well as several magazine articles. In pure investment terms, Kielian has a long way to go to make up what he figures is $250,000 worth of lost labor time, but to him, it’s never been about the money.
“I knew this was too nifty of a product, and I wasn’t going to let someone with deeper pockets introduce it to the market and become like everyone else by saying, ‘I should have thought of that!’” he said.
Kielian has applied for a patent but it’s still pending. He calls the process expensive, complicated and time- consuming.
“Fortunately, I have a wife who runs the business here who is also very resourceful and found out all she needed to know about patents through research on the Internet and in the library,” Kielian says. “Thank goodness she was willing to endure all that. There were days her office was off limits to me because she was so stressed. The day we mailed [the patent application] out, we went to dinner to celebrate.”
To other collision repairers dreaming of their own unique inventions, Kielian says to stay passionate and turn talk into action.
“Work it out on paper and get it out of your head,” he says. “We’re all human, and we all have moments of inspiration and laziness. Those moments of inspiration need to be re-inspired by past moments of inspiration, and then they just need to feed on each other, like laying a foundation one brick at a time.”
Kielian further advises budding inventors to take what they work out on paper, date it and send a letter to themselves through the mail so the date is confirmed with a postmark, which he says eliminates the need to prove they conceived of the idea on a certain date. They should then build two or three prototypes, and only after that pursue a patent, he says.
Ready to Dominate
There was no eureka moment for Darryl Domino when he came up with The Dominator2 dent removal tool. Domino opened the first and largest (10,000 square feet) paintless dent repair shop in New Orleans almost 20 years ago in 1991. Success came over time, and eventually this success afforded him the time to concentrate on the “research and development” of many of his ideas to improve paintless dent repair.
He was simply looking for a better way to do his job. He realized how today’s paint could survive brutal abuse from conventional paintless dent repair tools, and knew he needed something that could “hit” metal extremely fast.
His initial idea was that of some sort of “cam shaft” or “piston,” but couldn’t put his finger on it until that one fateful day: “I was sitting in the shop trying to come up with something when it hit me. I knew I needed something that could achieve incredible RPM, so the only thing that came to mind was lying on the table right in front of me – my die grinder!”
“I grabbed the die grinder, found a hex nut that fit the threads, and then found some large ball bearings. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, but I was bound and determined to try something. I welded four ball bearings around the nut, then found an old fender with a large crease in it. I put the nut on the die grinder, cranked it up to 20,000 RPM, and gave it a go. The thing was so loud I had to stop and go get my ‘head set,’ but only seconds after pulling the trigger the second time, I knew I had done it!”
According to Domino, the metal started coming right up, without breaking the paint. And he could control the finest of movement.
But there were problems. The tool had to be able to access deep inside panels. And with a tool three to four feet long that can spin at 20,000 rpm, a “harmonic balance” issue is created – the same problem, Domino says, that the aviation industry has to deal with in propellers, which can become out of sync and create vibrations and gyrations. So Domino invented his own bearing to stabilize the tool and dissipate the heat it generated.
That was eight years ago. Domino estimates he has spent well over $400,000 for manufacturing, marketing, research and development, legal costs, travel, etc.
His first attempt to bring the tool to market was at NACE in Orlando. At the time, the tool was only patent pending, and Domino became so paranoid that someone would steal his idea that he pulled the tool off the market until he received his patents a year and a half later. He took the system back to the market in 2003, but then the bottom fell out when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm ravished New Orleans and the economy, Domino left for Birmingham, Ala., to concentrate once again on the Dominator System and training.
Domino says that people all over the world have heard of the Dominator and only know that “some guy down south” invented some kind of dent removal tool, then disappeared!
“It has been an adventure,” says Domino, “but my system is real, and I will spend the rest of my life promoting and teaching it.”
The system consists of four processes: first using hydraulics with “carpet blocks” to push the majority of the metal back, then using one of three different pneumatic suction cups. The third process is the “glue system” where all the glue pads are perforated, thereby changing the physics of how strongly glue pads can hold on to pull metal, with the fourth and final step using either The Dominator2 dent removal tool or conventional paintless dent repair to finish the dent.
This system is designed for large damage and, Domino claims, eliminates or reduces the need to use fillers.
Domino will be teaching his system as well as paintless dent repair at the Alabama State School of Technology in Columbiana, where the courses will be available to individuals and companies outside the school’s regular enrollment.
Domino believes that part of his success is due to persistence and a never-say-die attitude.
“You have to be a pit bull and not take no for an answer,” he says. “So many guys have a great idea or tool, and there it sits because they give up on it. It’s 8-1/2 years later and my wife is still asking, ‘When are we going to see a return on our money?’”
And Domino is not done yet.
“Teaching and training of the removal of large damage is my life’s work,” he says. “By utilizing today’s technology, the Internet and the iPhone, students can log into a never-ending video library and inter-active Web site to learn our system. The days of one-week training classes and static CDs are coming to an end. This is a new day in technology and automotive dent repair.”
Save a Rail
Like most of the other inventors in this story, Tim Gerhards’ adventure began with essentially the same question: “How can I make this certain task easier?” The task was skinning a door, which required lots of hammering and dollying.
“You would have to walk around the entire door frame and beat this metal over and over, and it was very fatiguing on the hands,” said Gerhards, who works as a technician at B & J Body Shop in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
So one day Gerhards grabbed a piece of wood and ground it into a shape that would allow him to bend the flange over and flatten it out at the same time. After a few more adjustments to the tool, he realized this was something he needed to patent. After a 3-1/2 year wait, he received the patent, joined a local inventors’ group and was advised to market the tool at a trade show.
So he went to NACE in 2009, and Steck Manufacturing expressed an interest in manufacturing and marketing the product for him. Thus was born the Skin Zipper, billed as an air hammer-driven skinning tool that skins doors in less than 10 minutes. Also born was a fruitful business relationship with Steck.
“Steck told me that they would apply for patents and pay for the costs for other products of mine if they believed they should be patented,” Gerhards said. “Since then, we’ve worked on five other products that are still patent pending.”
Those products include a MIG Light, Panel Shaper, Workstand Clamp and E-Z II Strip Molding Tool. Also coming out is a Handipull Kit that consists of a series of eyebolts that screw into welded-on nuts to allow for light pulls all around a vehicle.
“They just started coming,” Gerhards says of the ideas that led to the six tools he has invented for Steck. “I just started to recognize that difficult repair situations or problems could be solved with certain products. It was a matter of getting into a problem and thinking, ‘How can I turn this into a product to solve this problem?’”
Gerhards’ success with Steck inspired him to create his own company, TG Products, to manufacture and market other inventions on his own. The first product for this company is The Rail Saver, a system that repairs damaged side members and frame rails that he debuted at the 2009 NACE. Prior to NACE, Gerhards had only sold a little over 50 Rail Savers, but after the show, sales grew to over 200.
“NACE was a good shot in the arm,” Gerhards says. “I also plan on showing it at the Northeast Show in New Jersey in March. Right now, I’m trying to get it out in the distribution chain, and thanks to NACE, several distributors are already on board.”
Gerhards started his own company primarily so that he could bring products more quickly to the market and also make more money.
“I wouldn’t have done this on my own if I hadn’t had the experience I’ve had with Steck,” he said. “They’ve taught me all the things involved in bringing a product to market.”
With Steck, Gerhards gets an average royalty of 3 to 5 percent of the wholesale, not the retail, price at which each of his tools is sold. He quips that this hasn’t allowed him to quit his job, although that’s his ultimate goal. By selling inventions from his own company, Gerhards stands to make significantly more.
Gerhards doesn’t believe he’s any better at inventing than anyone else. Rather, he believes the collision repair industry is ripe for creating inventors because of all the unique repair situations that sometimes require better tools than what’s available.
“I think the auto body trade has grown inventing into me,” Gerhards says. “You’re constantly encountering situations where there is no tool and you need to rig something to get the job done and you end up welding wrenches together or something. I knew I was going to come up with something – it was just a matter of what and when.”
Gerhards said that collision repairers have the skill sets to build their own prototypes quite easily since they know how to weld metal, shape metal, etc. “I’ve been able to build every prototype I’ve ever needed,” he says.
Gerhards said the main pitfall potential inventors fall into is not fully understanding the process of turning their ideas into realities.
“People don’t know how to or are never willing to show anyone their idea in fear of it getting stolen,” he says. “They have an idea in their head of the kind of marketing they want to do and the direction they want to go, but they don’t see the big picture of how things should really go and have the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. They have an overinflated idea and an overinflated value of that idea, which ultimately leads to a lack of success.”
Gerhards advises aspiring inventors not to go to invention submission companies. Instead, he says they should join a local inventor’s organization at the United Inventors Association or www.uiausa.org.
Gerhards said it has been very difficult balancing his inventing with his full-time job and Cubmaster/soccer coach duties for his three sons, but says that when there’s a will, there’s a way.
“There are a lot of late nights and early mornings,” he says. “What helps is that my employer, B & J Body Shop, has been very supportive in allowing me to take time off with no pay to get some of this stuff happening.”
Gerhards says that TG Products is finally starting to make money, but most of the money is being eaten up by his time away from his full-time job. Still, he has been able to reinvest some money into more products to broaden the company’s offering.
Bob Greer’s invention was born out of pure frustration. In 1998, he was buffing six to seven cars a day at a collision repair facility, constantly picking up the polish bottle and setting it back down. So he built a rough prototype of an automatic polish dispenser that consisted of a pump and a battery and duct taped it to a buffer. By his own admission, it looked like a “bomb”…but it worked.
“One guy who watched me use it said, ‘You’re going to make a fortune with that thing!’” Greer said.
The fortune hasn’t come yet, but Greer sure has spent a fortune on his invention – nearly $80,000! He filed a patent for his “Thumb Gun” in 2007 and is still awaiting word on whether it will be granted. He said the process typically takes 18 months, but he’s hopeful it will take less time.
“The downturn in the economy actually helped me because my patent application got pushed farther forward in the patent process due to the fact that fewer people are filing patents and they started catching up with their backlog,” Greer said. “It also helped me negotiate prices and get the tooling and manufacturing, which is done in China, cheaper.”
Despite the economy, sales have been brisk, with nearly 700 of the first production run of 1,000 sold. After exhibiting at the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) in 2009, he got orders from all around the world and even found a distributor.
Greer doesn’t think he’s any more special than anyone else just because he invented something. He says the key for him was being a “finisher.”
“I’m a guy who finishes stuff,” he says. “Working on a deadline in a shop has taught me how to do that.”
Echoing Gerhards’ comments, Greer says he believes collision technicians have to exhibit, by necessity, ingenuity and problem-solving on the job every day.
“As a tech, sometimes you just have to figure stuff out,” he says. “There are standards to go by, but there isn’t an exact way. Everyone does it differently, but if you get to the same end point, it’s all good. What I accomplished with the Thumb Gun is a tribute to performing body and paint functions and fixing cars on deadline.”
|Patents: Do They Really Protect You?|
|Everybody’s big on getting patents for their inventions, but don’t tell that to Andrew Sokol, CEO of Protech Polymer Products, LTD., and inventor of PRESTO! Products. He says he got burned big time when he was awarded patents for zero-VOC, UV-curable sprayable paints he invented in the early ’90s that he claims were subsequently copied by a Canadian company. The patent process, he claims, required him to “teach how to practice his invention,” which he says equated to telling the world exactly how his invention worked step by step…all for a pretty piece of paper on the wall called a “United States Patent.”
“The patent process is the biggest legislative con the government has ever perpetuated on us,” Sokol says. “It was initially set up to protect the small inventor and foster inventorship and innovation. But it has been perverted and turned into a means to milk small entrepreneurs of ideas and leave them hanging in the wind.”
Sokol says the question inventors who consult with patent attorneys never ask is, “Presuming I’m awarded a patent, how much is it going to cost me to defend its in court?”
“Say someone knocks off your patented idea and markets it and sells it to the best of their ability and hopes you don’t notice,” Sokol says. “If you don’t notice, they get away with it. If you do catch them, then you’re required to defend the patent. If you fail to do this, the patent is considered abandoned and free to anyone to use. Defending your patent means making a federal case out of it…literally. Do you know how much it costs to defend a patent in federal court? It starts at six figures. Keep in mind that a patent is like a ‘birth certificate’ for your idea. Inventors often look upon their inventions like their kid in a way…a kid someone just kidnapped.”
Sokol, who admits he’s not a professional patent lawyer, says the smarter play is to simply keep your invention a trade secret, which basically means to keep your mouth shut about how and what makes your product work. If anything, he says inventors should copyright their inventions because he believes it has more teeth than a patent.
“If you copyright the design of a tool, it’s harder to steal,” Sokol says. “The concept of why a tool works is in the design. If you copyright the core concept of the design, you copyright the whole purpose of the tool.”
“Look at what the music industry has done with copyrights on songs,” he adds. “These copyrights have really strengthened laws for any kind of copyright.”
Sokol says that a copyright is also cheaper than a patent, easier to get and puts people on notice faster. He says that technically one should still consult with a lawyer on this, but putting a “C” in a circle, the year, your name and “all rights reserved” pretty much covers you.
Sokol’s final advice? If you’re looking for a company to market and sell your product, look for one with proven integrity. SIMONIZ, who he has no written contract with but just a handshake deal, launched his retail grade clearcoat repair pen with worldwide sales of about 3 million.
“Everyone will say, ‘We’ll make you millions,’ but that and a buck will get you a cup of cheap coffee. What impresses an innovator more than anything else is when a company says, ‘Let us show you first that we can do it.’ If you can find a company with that kind of integrity, that’s the direction you want to go.”
Jason Stahl is editor of BodyShop Business. He has had 1,000 ideas for inventions but hasn’t done a darned thing about any of them. He can be reached at (330) 670-1234 ext. 226.