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Turning tragedy into opportunity: Chris Hanks’ invention improves car-carrier safety at Auto Carrier Express

manclimbingBy Robyn A. Friedman      

Chris Hanks has served in the U.S. Navy. He was a construction manager on commercial projects. He’s currently fleet manager for Auto Carrier Express (ACE), a Jacksonville-based auto transport firm.

And now, Hanks is something he never thought he would be—an inventor.

Last October, Randall Long, the father of twin 8-year-old girls and a driver for ACE, fell while loading vehicles onto a car carrier. The fall turned tragic. Long hit his head, and within two days, he was dead. Hanks and his dad, Gilbert Hanks, who founded the company, were left wondering what they could do to prevent future injuries, which Hanks says are not uncommon in the auto transport industry.

“Every company out there that hauls cars has had somebody fall from the head rack [the part of the track that is above the truck’s cab],” Hanks said. “We found it hard to believe there was nothing out there that could protect the driver, so we started thinking about it and brainstorming.”

carrierwithmansmallHanks tinkered with ideas. He was stymied because there is little room on the head rack to install any sort of safety device without interfering with its function.

But Hanks persisted and realized that he could harness a three-inch gap on the head rack. He ultimately came up with an idea for a product he felt would make loading and unloading vehicles safer. The result: The Surefooting Safety Platform, which provides protection from falls for truck drivers who have to load and unload cars from the tops of car carriers.

After considering various alternatives, Hanks conceived the idea for the platform one weekend and sketched it out for his dad. “You could see the lightbulb go off in his head as well,” Hanks recalled. “He said, ‘We’ve got to get a patent on this right now. We need to protect ourselves.’”

carrierstepsmallFeatures of the Surefooting Safety Platform, which has a 300 pound capacity, include:

• Hydraulic activation, which makes deployment and storage easy for the operator;

• Bypass prevention, to help ensure the operator will use the system by limiting access to stowed vehicles when the platform has not been deployed;

• Safety cables, so the operator has a good gripping surface; and

• Door safety zones, which provide ample room to open vehicle doors without damage.

Within 24 hours, Hanks—who is not an engineer but says he’s “just a handyman”—built a prototype—a 1/18th scale model—in the company shop. A few weeks later, he had a working model on one of his trucks.

Chris and Gilbert Hanks also visited a patent attorney, Jo-Anne Yau, with Wood, Atter & Wolf in Jacksonville. She guided them through the steps they would need to take to apply for utility and design patents for the platform. The patent applications have since been filed, and Chris said it will take between 18 and 24 months before the patents are approved. Application and legal fees cost approximately $10,000, he said.

carrierstep1smallThe invention has been well-received in the industry. Dave Campbell, who has been involved in the auto transport industry for 20 years and writes an industry blog from his home in Wewoka, Okla., said it’s easy to fall when loading or unloading a vehicle, especially at night, when many deliveries occur. He was impressed with the platform. “This will make it better for drivers,” he said. “And that will make it better for our whole industry. I can’t believe somebody didn’t do this sooner.”

Campbell said if the platform ultimately proves to lower workers’ compensation claims, then the insurance industry might encourage companies to install it, and that will help fuel sales.

Barriers remain

But despite an apparent need for the platform and indicators of demand, Hanks faces several barriers to bringing the product to market.

The first: The current state of the economy. “We couldn’t have picked a worse time,” he said. “This is something everyone needs but something no one can afford now.”

Another barrier is the size of Hanks’ company. ACE is a small business—just 30 employees. To build more platforms, Hanks said he needs not only additional employees but also a new building. “We don’t by any means have the ability to mass produce these,” Hanks said. And even if he licenses or sells the patent to another company—and he’s considering doing so—research and development budgets have been slashed, and it will take deep pockets to bring the invention to market.

The platforms are constructed from thin-walled steel, expanded metal, and hydraulic cylinders. Hanks said pricing has not yet been finalized, but he estimates that each unit should sell for “somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,500 to $6,500.”

Despite the challenges, opportunities exist for the invention. Philip Kopman, an ACE co-owner who is handling marketing for the product, said there are about 20,000 car carriers currently on the road, and that the trailers have a 10-year lifespan. “About 2,000 a year are being replaced,” he said. “And we hope to capture—eventually—75% of that.”

Kopman said the firm is considering selling the patents or entering into a distributorship with a larger company that can better produce the product, such as Cottrell Inc., a manufacturer of car hauling equipment. “This is not our expertise,” he said. “It was a great idea, but Cottrell has the engineering expertise in-house and the large-scale manufacturing facility, as well as the connections and market capitalization to do this.”

Chris Hanks agrees. “It’s a challenge for us to find the time and ambition to develop a second business right now,” he said. “There’s a learning curve.”

Still, Hanks would advise other would-be inventors to have confidence in their product and follow their dreams. “If you have an idea, move forward with it,” he said. “Be persistent.”

Chris and Gilbert Hands and Philip Kopman can be reached through Sure Footing Safety (www.surefootingsafety.com) or Auto Carrier Express (www.acecarrier.com), 904.358.3830. Attorney Jo-Anne Yau works in the law offices of Wood, Atter & Wolf, PA (www.woodatter.com).

 

Robyn A. Friedman is a contributing editor with Jacksonville Advantage. She can be contacted at RAFWriter@att.net.

 

SIDEBAR

6 steps for getting an idea to product stage

If the light bulb is glowing above your head, and you’re bursting with joy because you just came up with an idea for the next great [whatever], before you start calling your friends to celebrate the good news, stop. Your idea needs to be protected. What to do?

Jacksonville patent attorney Jo-Anne Yau advises her clients to take the following steps:

1. Document it. Yau has her clients create an “inventor’s diary” to describe how the product works, what the design looks like, and how it will be built. She said documenting the steps it takes to invent a product helps to show the thought process involved and creates a paper trail. That might make it easier to prove that you are in fact the inventor if anyone ever presents a challenge.

2. Research. Conduct a patent search to confirm the originality of your idea. The place to do this is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), http://patft.uspto.gov/.

3. Build a prototype. After the prototype is completed, Yau asks clients for sketches, photographs, and even video. Those are provided to a draftsperson who prepares CAD drawings for submission to the USPTO.

4. File the patent application. There are two main patents to choose from: a utility patent (for a new and useful process or machine) or a design patent (for an original and ornamental design for a manufactured article).

5. Be prepared to wait. Yau said it can take several years before a patent is approved.

6. Market the product. After you have applied for the patent, you can use the term “patent pending,” Yau explained. Only after this point does she advise clients to begin looking for a manufacturer to mass produce the product or to engage in negotiations to license the idea or sell the patent. 

 

Video

To watch a video demonstration of the Surefooting Safety Platform, click here.


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