While researching a story that appears on our website ("Man On A Mission," http://rbi.ims.ca/4930-502), I ran across an amazing phenomenon: Everyone, it seems, has a friend or relative who has lost a finger or thumb to a table saw. If you listen to their stories, you can hear about gifted musicians who could no longer play the guitar and fathers who had to ask their children to help button their shirts every morning.
I bring this up, not because I want to take saw manufacturers to task, but because these tales reveal how we as a society have come to accept amputations as a way of life for woodworkers. In an average 10-year period, U.S. woodworkers typically lose about 25,000 fingers and thumbs, which is why so many of us are familiar with amputees.
If there's a lesson for engineers in this type of social acceptance, it's that change is difficult, even if "change" means eliminating thousands of amputations per year.
Just ask Stephen Gass, a patent attorney who also happens to hold a Ph.D. in physics. Gass developed a remarkable way to enable saws to distinguish between flesh and wood. His feature employs a digital signal processor to analyze the electrical capacitance at the saw blade and, therefore, to determine what the saw blade is cutting. When he put the feature on a table saw, he suddenly discovered he'd developed an extremely powerful safety measure, and decided to take it to the power tool industry. (To fully appreciate the technology, view the "hot dog demo" on our website at http://rbi.ims.ca/4930-503. It's an amazing video clip.)
As you might guess, though, our society's acceptance of finger amputations comes replete with corporate and legal mechanisms that protect the status quo. And, let's add here, those mechanisms can be a good thing. By enabling saw manufacturers to build saws for those willing to use them at their own risk, they gave us a power tool industry. Without those mechanisms, we might not have table saws.
Still, Gass's battle with the status quo shows how difficult it can be for an inventor to break through entrenched ways of doing business, even when an invention holds such potential importance for society. Gass says the power tool industry rejected his technology, ganged up against him in an attempt to circumvent his patents, and publicly attacked his effort to get the technology accepted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The power tool industry, meanwhile, says Gass's technology is not practical and accuses him of vilifying its members in the media.
Ultimately, though, the Consumer Product Safety Commission saw the value in the skin-sensing technology. In late June, its staff recommended that the commission proceed with a rulemaking process that is likely to result in a mandatory safety standard for table saws (read more about it at http://rbi.ims.ca/4930-504, or in our 09.04.06 issue). Gass sees the commission's decision as a huge victory for his technology.
His victory also serves as a powerful lesson for engineers who have to battle for acceptance of new technologies. Despite what documentary movies often show, the forces that restrain innovation aren't always the result of conspiracies. Nor are they necessarily illegal. Sometimes, the greatest force technology can face is our acceptance of the status quo.