Today, electrical systems and lighting technology are in a constant state of development. However, the big companies aren’t always responsible for the brightest ideas. Sometimes, the independent inventors who work in the trade create the products that advance existing technology. Curious? Proceed.
In any factory, hundreds of pipe-support brackets or racks hang from the ceiling. Electricians and pipe fitters working in food and beverage manufacturing plants face a challenge in creating and installing them. Due to specific sanitation regulations, racks in these plants have to be fabricated of certain materials in a specific way, on-site and one at a time.
“The process is time-consuming, dirty, dangerous and expensive,” said Ron Meyer, founder and sales director of Rocket Rack and a former St. Louis IBEW Local No. 1 electrician. “To make racks, tradesmen start with a 20-foot stick of 2-by-2-by-¼-inch stainless angle, cut it to length, meticulously mark it and then drill individual holes for U-bolts for the racks. A 4-foot rack can take three hours to make, and since using all-thread rod isn’t permitted in food plants, workers have to thread the tip-end of smooth, stainless rod to install the racks, a process that can lead to injuries.”
Meyer worked mostly in food-production facilities and breweries during his 30 years in the trade.
“During one particularly fast-track project, I was fed up,” he said. “I’d been toying with the design for a prefabricated system—a preslotted rack with mounting holes at each end. A slot would allow for repositioning of the conduit, creating precise alignment of the entire run. A machinist friend was able to make up a bunch on short notice. We completed the job in record time; our customer was thrilled. My [project manager] suggested I seek a design patent.”
Meyer did just that and, in 2009, gained what would become the first of Rocket Rack’s five rack design patents. Then came engineering, determining load ratings and the length and placement of slots and mounting holes.
Today, the Rocket Rack system includes a PVC-coated rod, created when PVC heat-shrink is applied to a stick of all-thread rod and then run through a tunnel oven.
“An installer uses a utility knife to cut away a small section of the coating, revealing just the number of threads needed to install rack hardware, eliminating the need to thread a rod on-site,” Meyer said.
While he continued working as an electrician during those early years, Ron’s wife, Julie, owner and president of Rocket Rack, entered a business-plan competition and won a $50,000 grant from Arch Grants, a nonprofit organization that provides equity-free grants and pro bono support services to entrepreneurs starting a business in St. Louis.
Now, both Meyers work full time at Rocket Rack in Gray Summit, Mo., where they produce the easy-to-install, food-grade support system.
In addition to their original products—standard and wall-mounted Rocket Rack and the PVC-coated rod—they now also produce the Tented Rocket Rack (shown on opposite page), which has a slot and mounting holes cut into the peak of the angle. The systems meet all standards of the 2016 Food Safety Modernization Act and are used in food and beverage manufacturing facilities all over the United States.
“Learning to run a business has been challenging, but we’ve built a great team, and I’m happy we’re creating U.S. manufacturing jobs,” Meyer said. “Our customers say they love our products. They’re able to pass the value along to their customers, which means they’ll be called back for future projects.”
It’s no secret now that, with the lighting industry turning to the light-emitting diode (LED), solid-state lighting pervades. Some seven years ago, however, when Jason Baright, president of G&G LED, Albany, N.Y., started his company, there wasn’t an LED fixture that would survive in harsh, chemical-laden, wet environments. Seeking to veer away from his 9-to-5 job working for a defense contractor, he saw an opportunity.
When Baright was growing up, his grandfather owned a car wash and—with the help of Baright’s father, an electrical contractor—grew the business to 10 car washes. When he was younger, Baright was part of the operation, his dad training him in electrical work. He later earned an electrical engineering degree.
With the background, education and ability to recognize an opportunity in a need, Baright started G&G LED.
“The LED fixtures being used in car washes were canopy fixtures that had problems with water ingress,” Baright said. “That’s what prompted our company to develop a fixture that is IP69K, high-pressure hose-down rated and chemically resistant.”
G&G LED’s product is a wet-rated lighting fixture that has rugged electrical connectors on either end, made in linear sizes from 2 to 8 feet long. Baright’s patented interconnect, plug-and-play fixture design makes it modular. It can be daisy-chained into long segments up to 80 feet.
“If you can survive in the car wash environment, you’ve built a fixture that will work in any environment,” he said. “So, from there, we’ve taken it into lots of different markets with good success. [For instance,] rail tunnels in New York City. That’s not a market that you’d typically think, ‘Oh, rail tunnels, that’s a good one.’ But it’s a fun market to be in.
“We’re doing platform and emergency ingress lighting spaced out evenly along the entire trainways—tough, demanding spaces. Our lighting results in reduced maintenance and energy consumption because it’s very expensive to shut down those lines to do repairs,” he said.
Further expanding from its survivability foundation, G&G LED is making RGB color-changing fixtures with strobing effects designed for car washes and outdoor architectural building lighting.
Nanoleaf co-founders Gimmy Chu, Tom Rodinger and Christian Yan met in 2005 as engineering students participating on the University of Toronto’s World Solar Challenge solar car team, which sent eco-engineered automobiles across the United States and Australia. From that project, they learned performance didn’t have to be compromised for the sake of efficiency. After graduation, their shared passion for energy technologies led them to consider starting a company together.
They had an idea. A Kickstarter campaign seemed like a good way to raise $20,000 to begin their venture in 2012. In just two days, they pulled in $270,000, and Nanoleaf was formed.
The first product was an LED lamp, Nanoleaf One, which generates more than 1,600 lumens—equivalent to a 100 watt (W) incandescent light bulb—but uses only 12W, a 133 lumens-per-watt efficiency. It is made in the shape of a ninja star from a flat-printed circuit board, with circuitry on the inside, embedded with LEDs and designed to be folded into a dodecahedron-shaped light bulb (see above).
Chu, Rodinger and Yan have a patent pending for the way the Nanoleaf One dissipates heat. In other LED lamps, the circuitry is in the heat sink, but the Nanoleaf’s circuitry and dodecahedron shape provide its own internal heat dissipation system so that it can work without a heat sink. A further development of that product, the Ivy Smarter Kit, is designed to work with Apple HomeKit and voice control.
“We made this bulb voice-controllable so that people won’t even have to get out of bed to turn off their lights,” Chu said.
With interior design in mind, the trio created Nanoleaf Aurora, launching this month, which is a group of triangular, Wi-Fi-controllable, modular, smart LED lighting panels with which users can create any design they want in their living space.
According to Nanoleaf, the company’s first product originated from a belief that “the lightbulb didn’t have to look like a lightbulb just because,” and it’s that kind of outside-the-bulb thinking that has led to Nanoleaf’s success.
Neil Joseph, founder and CEO of Stack Lighting, Cupertino, Calif., had a similar mode of thinking; however, instead of the innovation focusing on the general service lamp’s exterior, he focused on its interior, namely its “brains” and “guts.”
When the first generation of smart lights hit the market, Joseph thought it was the beginning of something much bigger. He knew he wanted to be a part of it but wasn’t sure how. It occurred to him, however, that he had to pull out a mobile device every time he wanted those smart lights to do something.
“I felt it basically defeated the purpose but knew there was still so much potential,” Joseph said.
At the time, he was working at Tesla. One day, while sitting by windows with the sun streaming in, he thought, “Why aren’t the lights dimmed?” That question led to the thought that there were no easy ways to make lighting and building controls responsive to their environment without installation of a very complex and expensive control system with external sensors.
He left Tesla almost three years ago to start Stack Lighting.
“I set off on a crusade to develop a sensor technology that could be embedded in the lights themselves,” he said.
Engineering was the challenge.
“We were literally trying to put layers of technology into a hot environment, one that you’d normally try to avoid,” Joseph said. “With each design or component change, we had to really think about how that would not only affect the rest of the hardware, but also the software.”
The lamp’s sensor was designed to cancel out its own light to accurately measure the ambient, or natural, light.
“Eight design changes were needed just to perfect that system,” he said. “We kept testing and perfecting until we found the right balance between the two.”
Stack Lighting’s main business model today is the Stack Enabled program, in which Stack partners with companies, allowing them access to motion-sensing algorithms and ambient light sensor technology, basically embedding Stack technology into their lighting products. Stack works with Amazon’s Alexa, the Nest thermostat and more.
“I was on a job site when my apprentice and I were working on a junction box,” said Warren Tarbell, CEO of Nonconductive Tool Co. LLC, and general contractor and owner of MidStone Construction, Torrance, Calif. “A wire was live, and we couldn’t shut the breaker off. The apprentice said, ‘I wish I had a tool with a hook on it to pull this wire out of the box,’ and that’s what sparked the idea of doing a nonconductive tool that allows you to reach into a junction box, outlet box, switch or breaker panel—any place that there’s an electrical wire—and simply grab the wire.”
While the idea occurred to Tarbell about 10 years ago, it wasn’t until two years ago that he did a search and discovered nothing like it existed in the marketplace. He and his team got busy making and testing a series of prototypes, filed for patents and started the company.
“The path to invention is always a hard one,” Tarbell said. “The VoltClaw tools seemed easy at first. Famous last words. Getting the design dialed in was a process with long days and late nights. We would make a prototype, test it out in the field and come back to the workbench with a list of changes.”
The first tools were made of wood because it was easy to work with them and could prove the concept. Then, Tarbell and his team made them out of other materials.
“We developed VoltClaw 12 and the VoltClaw Multi-Gauge, tools made of glass-filled nylon,” he said. “They allow an electrician to not only reach in, grab a wire and grip it tight, but also to bend it to any shape and then push it back into the box.”
However, between those first tools and the final product, the VoltClaw went through many iterations.
“We ended up building 80 prototypes before we came up with the final design,” he said. “Thomas Edison would have said, ‘I know 80 ways not to make a VoltClaw.’”
Nevertheless, the efforts paid off.
“When we got the first run of tools back from the injection-molding company, it was a thrill to hold them in our hands and reflect on the journey,” Tarbell said. “We gave samples to a test group of local electricians for their feedback. For the most part they loved them, but after a few minutes of high fives and pats on the backs, we said, ‘What do we do now?’”
They kept at it.
“We jumped into the world of patents, tradeshows and sales reps with both feet, made a lot of mistakes, met amazing teachers and had fun along the way,” Tarbell said. “We are currently working on another tool. Wish us luck.”
Next time you are looking for the perfect, but not-yet-existent tool or product to solve a problem, channel that frustration and turn it into inspiration. You could be the next Edison, or Meyer, Baright, Chu, Rodinger, Yan, Joseph or Tarbell.