Monday, February 06, 2006

He Took On the Whole Power-Tool Industry

From: Inc. Magazine, July 2005

By: Melba Newsome

In February 2001, Stephen Gass strode to the podium in a conferenceroom at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and began the video presentation for SawStop, his new invention. The 75 attendees watched the screen closely as a woodworker fed a sheet of plywood into a power-saw bladespinning at 4,000 rpm. Then a hot dog was placed in the path of the blade. Miraculously, the instant the blade made contact with the wiener, the saw shut down and the blade retracted. The dog escapedwith only a small nick -- substitute a finger and it's the difference between a cut and an amputation.

Gass had given the same dog-and-pony show a dozen times, mostly forwoodworkers, contractors, and a few industry executives. But this audience was different. It consisted of lawyers for the Defense Research Industry, a trade group for attorneys representing the power-tool industry. SawStop could help prevent thousands of serious injuries caused by power tools each year, Gass believed -- if the industry would license it. He returned to his seat thinking he had made his case.

Then Dan Lanier, national coordinating counsel for Black & Decker, stepped to the podium. His topic: "Evidentiary Issues Relating to SawStop Technology for Power Saws." Lanier spent the next 30 minutes discussing a hypothetical lawsuit -- in which a plaintiff suing a power-saw manufacturer contended the saw was defective because it did not incorporate SawStop's technology -- and suggesting ways defense counsel might respond. Lanier recalls it as a rather dry exploration of legal issues. Gass heard something different. To his ears, Lanier's message was this: If we all stick together and don't license this product, the industry can argue that everybody rejected it so it obviously wasn't viable, thereby limiting any legal liability the industry might face as a result of the new technology. (Lanier denies this was his point.)

Gass was stunned. His tiny start-up, run by three guys out of a barn in Wilsonville, Oreg., had captured the attention of the entire power-tool industry. For months, he had been negotiating with major players such as Ryobi, Delta, Black & Decker, Emerson, and Craftsman about licensing his invention. Instead, they seemed intent on trying to make him and his product go away.

Some 32,000 Americans are rushed to emergency rooms with table-saw-related injuries each year, according to the ConsumerProduct Safety Commission; more than 3,000 of those visits result in amputations, usually of fingers or hands. The medical bill to reattach a severed finger runs from about $10,000 for a clean wound to more than $25,000 if there's nerve damage, infection, or other complications, according to James W. Greer, president of theAssociation of Property and Casualty Claims Professionals, a tradegroup in Tampa. Factor in rehabilitation and lost time at work, and the cost per injury can easily reach six figures. Indeed, in 2002, theCPSC estimated the annual economic cost of table-saw injuries to be $2 billion. That's more than 10 times the size of the entire $175 milliontable-saw market. Clearly, this is an industry that could use a better mousetrap.

That's what Gass figured he had in the summer of 2000, when SawStop's technology made its debut. A year later, the Consumer Products Safety Commission awarded the device its Chairman's Commendation for product safety. Popular Science magazine named it one of 100 Best New Innovations. Tool industry bigwigs seemed impressed too. "It is probably one of the most major developments in the area of product safety applicable for table saws," said Peter Domeny, director of product safety for S-B Power Tool, which makes Skil and Bosch tools.

So, four years later, why isn't SawStop on every table saw on themarket? That's the funny thing about better mousetraps. Build one, and the other mousetrap makers will probably hate your guts. They might even try to squeeze you out of the mousetrap business altogether. Just ask the inventors of air bags, safer cigarette lighters, and automatic shutoffs for electrical appliances -- all of which encountered resistance from the status quo. Ultimately they prevailed and their innovations became standard. Gass still has a long way to go.

Gass didn't set out to take on the power-tool industry. Nor did he ever see himself as an entrepreneur. The amateur woodworker was standing in his workshop one day in 1999, staring at his idle table saw. "The idea came to me that it might be possible to stop the blade quickly enough to avoid serious injury," he says. A patent attorneywho also holds a doctorate in physics, Gass loves nothing more than solving complex technical problems. He got out pencil, paper, and calculator and got to work.

Stopping the blade, he figured, would require a two-part process. First, he needed a brake that would work quickly enough when it came into contact with a woodworker's hand. Next, he had to design a triggering system that could differentiate between finger and wood. Given the speed of the blade, it would have to stop in about 1/100 of a second -- or at about an eighth of an inch of rotation after making contact. Any further, and the cut would be so deep that the device would be useless. To stop the blade this quickly would require about1,000 pounds of force to decelerate the blade in 10 milliseconds. That calculation took Gass about 30 minutes. The trigger problem was a little more complicated, but Gass came up with the idea of running a small electrical charge through the blade. The system would sense when the blade hit flesh because the body would absorb some of the charge.The resulting drop in voltage would be enough to trigger the brake and stop the blade almost instantly.

Gass spent two weeks designing the technology and, using a $200 secondhand table saw, an additional week building a prototype. Then he began to experiment. With the blade whirring, he touched his hand toits smooth side. It stopped immediately. The same thing happened whenhe ran a hot dog into the blade's teeth. Gass repeated the experimentdozens of times -- and each time the blade stopped immediately.

Convinced his invention would be embraced by the industry, he videotaped a demonstration, registered the patent, and set out to convince manufacturers to license the technology, which he had dubbedSawStop. He sent a video demo to Delta Machinery in Jackson, Tenn., one of the largest table-saw manufacturers, and waited.

Gass was pleased with his results, but he also knew there was something else to be done: He had to test SawStop on a real finger."There's not a lot of demand for a saw that's safe for hot dogs," he says with a laugh. And so, on a spring afternoon in 2000, Gass stood in his workshop and tried to summon the moxie to stick his left ringfinger into the teeth of a whirring saw blade. He had rubbed the digit with Novocain cream, hoping to dull the pain of the cut. On the first try, his heart beating furiously, he eased in close but recoiled before making contact. A few minutes later, he tried again. This time, he rolled his finger close enough to get a faint red mark, but panicked and pulled back before the brake triggered. By now, his forearm was cramping from the tension. It was difficult to keep his hand steady. Still, on his third attempt, he kept his nerve -- and the blade stopped, just as he knew it would. "It hurt like the dickens and bled a lot," he says. But the finger remained intact.

Several months later, Gass finally heard back from Delta. "No, thanks. Safety doesn't sell," he says he was told over the phone. (Delta, now known as Delta Porter Cable, is now owned by Black & Decker. A Delta spokesperson who asked not to be identified denies that a Delta employee made the comment.) Gass could not believe his ears. "Everybody in woodworking knows somebody who's lost a finger or had an accident," he says. How could a major manufacturer not be interested?

Read the rest of the article