Inventor's Attempt at Saw Safety Cuts Against Industry's Grain

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In 1999, Stephen Gass , a patent lawyer and woodworking hobbyist, invented a device to make power saws safer. It was designed to prevent, or at least minimize, the gruesome injuries that result when someone's flesh hits the blade of a table saw spinning at 4,000 revolutions per minute.

Home hobbyists and commercial workers have an estimated 55,000 injuries a year -- including thousands of amputations. Education and an existing saw safety guard didn't work well enough.

Gass called his invention SawStop and was so convinced of its value that he quit his job at a law firm, raised capital, and with two partners, started his own company in Wilsonville, Ore. He demonstrated the technology -- which can stop a saw blade in three-thousandths of a second -- to anyone who would watch.

Seven years later, Gass says he was unprepared for the buzz saw of opposition he got from such companies as Black & Decker Corp., Robert Bosch Tool Corp. and Ryobi Technologies Inc . "Our thought was the manufacturers would license it," he said. "We thought it was inevitable."

Instead, not a single manufacturer has signed a contract with him. An Underwriters Laboratories Inc. subcommittee, with some of the saw manufacturers on the panel, voted in early 2003 not to approve his invention.

John Drengenberg , manager of consumer affairs for UL, which is based in Northbrook, Ill., said the independent testing organization thought there were too many unanswered questions. "The blade stops in microseconds, but do we create some other hazard?" he said. "Does the blade fall apart, how easy is it to install a new one, will it work on metal? We don't mandate something because it is nice."

Gass then changed direction, turning to the Washington regulatory establishment, in the form of the Consumer Product Safety Commission , to try to win acceptance for SawStop. He petitioned the agency in April 2003, asking it to require the industry to devise a detection system that would stop a saw blade so that a user would be cut no deeper than one-eighth of an inch.

The CPSC reviewed the petition, yet took no immediate action. So Gass concentrated on filing some 50 patents related to the technology.

The industry, anticipating that the CPSC might become interested in issuing a standard, formed a joint venture later in 2003 to come up with its own improvements. This spring, the Power Tool Institute , its trade group, told the regulators it would probably have better guarding mechanisms ready by 2007, with the blessing of UL.

The institute, based in Cleveland, also said its efforts to examine sensing technology were being hindered by the "web of patent applications Mr. Gass has filed."

The industry made it clear that its members weren't prepared to pay up to an 8 percent royalty on the wholesale price of each saw, Gass's asking price.

They estimated it would cost at least $70 million to implement the technology proposed in Gass's petition and that consumers might not be willing to pay for it. They suggested the Oregon inventor was using a safety issue to profiteer.

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