I was so excited to see the story of the Tank Nanny here because as someone who always wanted to make inventions it's great to find out the history of one of my new favorites.
Here's a tale of two inventors with two very different products -- but some surprising similarities in how long and hard they worked to bring an inspiration for a solution to the market. One story's about something that's just a hassle: Schlepping your greasy propane grill tank in for a refill. Another's about any parent's worst nightmare: A crash with your baby in the car seat.
What these have in common is that New Englanders have been hard at work finding better ways to carry both your precious -- and your propane -- and those efforts have led to brand new products going on the market this summer. They're surprisingly similar stories of vision, inspiration, and long, hard work. David Amirault is design director for Dorel Juvenile Group, part of a huge child-products conglomerate that offers a wide line of car seats.
Five years ago, when car seats typically worked best only in head-on or rear-end crashes, Amirault said the company was looking into enhancements for child car seats. "We're always looking to find what we can do as a car-seat manufacturer to make products better, safer, and easier to use.'' "We were getting a lot of alarming statistics about how one in three crash fatalities for children are caused by side-impact accidents, so that starts opening the eyeballs,'' Amirault said. "We need to come up with a solution.'' For three years before they ever went to work designing a better side-impact car seat, Dorel worked with scientists at Kettering University. "Understanding crash dynamics was the next major hurdle,'' Amirault said.
They developed a complex testing lab to understand just what happens to a baby-sized crash-test dummy in a real-life side-impact accident that pushes a car door inside the passenger space. Everyone on the team is a parent, Amirault said, making this a project they all had their hearts in. He is father to a 9-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl himself. A YouTube video actually helped get Dave's team thinking about how you'd protect a toddler's head and neck. "One of the initial inspirations for us was a stunt guy jumping off a five-story building. He jumps off into a giant air mattress.''
The genius of what became the $249 Air Protect car seat was the cushioning around the head of the toddler, a specially designed piece of foam inside medical-grade plastic sheathing that absorbs and dissipates energy. Amirault said it's estimated the cushioning reduces 30 to 50 percent of the impact on a child's head and neck.
What Earl Cogswell Jr. saw was a much less dramatic but still very real issue with car owners and cargo. He runs his father-in-law's Dick Giacobbe's Dick's Power Equipment in Hanover, Mass. "We fill a lot of propane tanks, and people were coming in with all kinds of different configurations to secure the tank,'' Cogswell said. "The tanks would roll over in everybody's car. they make dents in the back of the trucks, they leave rust rings on the inside of the car.'' Not to mention greasy cheeseburger drippings.
"We decided we needed something to help our customers out ... We couldn't find anything so myself and my daughters, next door at Dunkin' Donuts, on a napkin, started drawing out different specifications,'' Cogswell said.
His older daughter, Jennifer, 25, is an engineer at Pratt & Whitney, and his daughter Jessica, 22, has been key in designing the labels and marketing for their solution: The Tank Nanny.
It costs $19, and through local shops, they've sold about 650 of the first 1,500 they had manufactured by a plastics specialist in Ohio. "We just had a blast with it,'' said Cogswell, saying that the chance to work closely with his daughters was one of the most satisfying aspects of the project. "There were a lot of sleepless nights -- and there still are, of course, because we've just gotten started.''
Cogswell estimated his family has invested about $160,000 in developing and launching the project and probably won't realize a profit until they have sold something around 50,000 to 60,000 Tank Nannies or licenses the design to a larger manufacturer or both.
The Tank Nanny took three years of work, the Air Protect car seat five. For both, the key was inventors who visualized both a problem and a solution and were dogged enough to make the solution work. The encouraging lesson for inventors? Maybe that no matter what the economy is doing, demand never flags for real solutions to real problems, big, small, and anywhere in between.