This post is in direct response to the numerous questions from guys just like you.
Now people from web sites I frequent know I have a penchant for running on a bit, so this might be a good time to take a bathroom break before continuing.
My brother and I developed the JET RACK(tm) system more than two years ago after tossing around the idea of an interior ladder racking system that would make effective use of the interior roof area that had been largely unused since he inception of the service vehicle many years before our time. By nature we were skilled and curious tinkerers who between the two of us had more than a few abstract invention ideas, but this one seemed like one of the more desirable and simple ideas to launch with a budget lower than most companies spend on water for their water coolers.
I had used a friend to manufacture some other small products that were also of interest to contractors, but as it goes with friends, things do not always get done the way you want them to be done.
For starters, he didn't follow my exact design wishes on either design, he priced them higher than I insisted they could be sold at, he had questionable marketing skills, and he also broke the rules when it comes to disclosure and patent application. All this mated with a paltry and questionable royalty pay out schedule made for few surprises when the products were accepted very well by contractors at the shows and then knocked off by companies who saw the loopholes you could fly a blimp through.
All of this taught me a few lessons that would be valuable in developing the JET RACK(tm) system.
We both understood the 6' fiberglass ladder to be our most popular and frequently used ladder. We also understood we spent a lot of time organizing our vehicles and jockeying these ladders around on the interior since we knew we would use these ladders nearly every day we worked. We would generally use the racks on the roof for less frequently used extension ladders, plus 8' & 10' A-frame ladders etc.
So how could we possibly come up with a design to meet our needs?
We are both consumers and end users, so before we even put pen to paper we decided what considerations must be made for it to be a successful product.
We decided it must be inexpensive enough that it would make good financial sense to own and operate. We both know of systems for racking ladders on the roof of vehicles that cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars, and while some of these systems are effective and complex, that they still didn't address the issues we wanted to address.
We didn't set out to compete with roof racks since they are useful places for stowing many other types of loads than we were concerned in dealing with.
It was a side benefit that we figured out that we were also helping to reduce theft of ladders that weren't locked up, and we have heard from many people who don't use roof racks simply because they park in garages in the city or at home that make such a rack impossible. I can't even tell you how many downtown blocks I've walked since I couldn't park my truck in a parking garage because the ladder rack put me over the clearance level.
We also noticed that our ladders that were purchased AFTER installing the JET RACK(tm) system looked like new ladders for a very long time. For one they don't experience any UV related fading and fiber bloom associated with externally mounted ladders. They also didn't get nearly as dirty, and dusty. Our ladders stay clean. Unless we're at a very dirty job, our ladders weren't showing the usual signs of wear, nor were they getting beat up from simply sharing space on the inside of our vehicles where they were either getting underneath our tools and equipment, or like at the end of any long day ... right on top of our equipment. It's surprising how much less time I spend trying to manage the material I use day-to-day in the back of the truck. I think about how much time I've spent in the back of my truck pulling the materials out and them putting them back in so I could have my ladder/s standing on their edge, and the tool bags and boxes neatly sharing floor space along side them. At the end of a work day I would do it all again, or unceremoniously toss the ladders and what-not one on top of the other just so I could get on with going home!
It's a vicious cycle that we've come to expect and provide time for. It took me a while to notice it, but once I got my ladders off the floor of my vehicle... I wasn't spending ANY time doing the daily tools, equipment and ladder shuffle. It just went away. It was another benefit that I didn't entirely understand in the beginning.
Sure I still take the time to reorganize the back of my truck, but without the ladder taking up so much floor space, I'm literally down to a few minutes a couple times a month.
Back to the design considerations.
We knew we had to keep it inexpensive enough that guys could justify buying one just to try it out. We knew that even if we could come up with a unique and exclusive design that operated very well, that most people wouldn't pay hundreds of dollars to store away a single ladder.
We decided had to make it available for less than a hundred dollars. We knew that was still a lot of coin, but since we pay that much money or more for a decent pair of work shoes or boots, that people would likely spend the money for something that really could enhance the way they work. Especially if it could pay for itself in time saved, and reduce frustration on any level.
We only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do, and that was that we wanted to use the interior roof space.
We knew we could easily develop some sort of hooks that would hang from the roof, but that meant you had to be able to climb into your vehicle to get the ladder up in there. This would be cumbersome, and all kinds of hooks already exist. This wasn't a unique solution, nor was it a solution at all! Some sort of shelf wasn't an option since we use shelves inside our trucks already it would make access to these areas very tough. Also it just wouldn't get the ladder as close to the roof as I wanted it to be.
Then came expense. How could we come up with a ladder sized shelf that was easy to install, handled various size ladders easily, and...dang, that was getting expensive. The idea of hardware that would permanently attach to the ladder was toyed with, but there are obvious liability and structural concerns that would keep this from becoming a reality, not to mention it would be pretty tough persuading consumers to drill or screw this or that to their ladders...Not really an option.
We knew we had do think more simple... So simple that it would be hard to compete with. We wanted it to be so simple in fact that anybody that tried to come up with a competing product would fail on every level. We could do this... and we couldn't violate any existing patents while doing so. There were many patents on file for all types of ladders on the market, but just as you would imagine, many were overcomplicated and therefore unusable on a large scale.
What could we do? We sat outside in blazing summer heat on Fullerton Ave. It the was the back of the shop where we did our work as contractors. It took some time and many attempts over a period of time before we decided a system that could use the tool hole available on the tops of most ladders might just be a simple enough plan to expound upon.
Getting the front of a 4' ladder up on a pin or hook didn't seen like much trouble, but we wanted to be able to easily deal with 6' and 8' ladders with such ease as well. The more loaded up my truck, the more I wanted a solution, the more trouble it would be to get the top of the ladder onto a pin. A very long pin wasn't a good idea for structural reasons, as well as many others. That would be a big box and a lot of materials... The expense was growing again.
It became apparent that we would need a rail system to slide the ladder in, and while we got excited that we were on the verge of coming up with a useful and effective design, we also realized we just shot down our desire to keep the cost of the unit down.
Railing systems are long, they have rollers and small parts that would cost a lot to develop. We also couldn't come up with a one size fits all solution. I knew we could come up with a roller assembly, but I was adamant that we make the system so simple that there would be no parts of it that would be a likely source of failure.
It all came back to keeping it VERY simple.
It was too late. The idea of a rail tested out too well to be ignored. It was a bit of an upset, and we knew we had the basics of a very useful design, but I wanted the system to be affordable enough that guys really couldn't justify not using one. If it cost too much, or was to complicated, then we could all live without it. Just thumbing through existing patents was testament to this. We knew there were a hundred ways to do exactly what we wanted to do, but how could we do it inexpensively?
Road Block. What about a rail that you could purchase separately we thought? Like a guy buys a 2X4 and a box of hardware to make a simple saw horse, or some black pipe and some hardware to make pipe clamps... Those work great. We could think of dozens of systems that were "modular." This is what we needed to do.
Then we got to thinking... It wasn't very long before we realized that all of the existing rail systems for pocket doors or whatever just wouldn't and couldn't possibly do the job. Aside for not using the best hardware, there was just no way to be sure that whatever type we liked would be available to others in all parts of the country and the world. This was a problem... We thought of using conduit as a rail, but there are many reasons this wouldn't work, we thought of PVC, wood, C-Channel... All of it had it's downside. And not all of it was available everywhere. The solution was right in front of us, and above us, and all around us... We like many other contractors had a bundle of Unistrut (hanger strut) standing in the corner of the shop. Could we use this? It was very similar to some heavy duty sliding door hardware I've hung some MASSIVE doors and gates from in the past?
Upon further examination we decided that there was no way we were going to get sturdy little rollers into that channel, especially the shallow 7/8" deep Unistrut we especially liked due to it's shallow depth and flexibility...
What about not having rollers at all we thought? We knew we wouldn't be supporting hundreds of pounds, and if we put a little white lithium grease inside the channel we could slide a bracket up inside it easily. We needed some surface area up inside the rail, and we had to be sure we wouldn't interfere with the potential mounting hardware as well.
We tested some various sliding mounts, and it wasn't very long before we were outside welding away at a prototype in the HOT summer sun. It was so hot that day that we parked my van up on the sidewalk and used drop cloths that we attached of all things to the roof rack and the side of the building to create a shaded area to work under. With fans and plenty of water I managed to only catch my long cotton shirt on fire one time. (Never wear polyester when welding or it will take your skin off when you catch it on fire.) It's an even better idea to not set yourself on fire in the first place, but even with my long leather gloves and leather apron it will still happen if the conditions are just right... or would that be just wrong? Anyhow...
We got that first prototype done, tested it, did a little shopping, made some minor changes, tested it, and installed that first unit in my van. We used some small self taping screws to hold the Unistrut to the roof ribs in my van, and it's a good thing we went with the 7/8" Unistrut since there was a definite bow in the roof that we followed with the strut. We had to be sure there was enough play in the sliding mount that it could follow this bend, or even a more severe one in the event it were bent to go over a pipe or other obstacle.
We got the ladder in the pin through the tool hole and it slid right into the van. SUCCESS! ... And then we went to pull the ladder out and it fell right off the pin and onto the floor. Unless we made it a hook or something entirely different it just wouldn't return! Concerned about patents etc., we had to devise a way to return the carriage that met our needs for a reduced budget.
We were so happy that we settled on the Unistrut, even though it isn't the intended application for this product, neither was gas pipe intended for monstering together that rickety chair in the corner. We both knew that at the very least most contractors were familiar with it, and that it was available at most hardware stores, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC supply houses all around the world!
We knew if we had to include a rail in the box it would drive our cost for packaging way up, it would increase the cost of shipping, it would NOT fit in a small box on a retailers counter or shelf, it would drive the cost of the unit WAY up for the consumer, and then it wouldn't be available to everybody, and then it could fail to be a widely accepted product. We couldn't afford to do this if we were to do it at all.
We knew we wanted to get the ladder to return to us, and we looked at every possible method. We wanted it to be simple and inexpensive. We couldn't use electric motors, we tried springs, air shocks, and as our patent reflects... Just about anything we could think of before we settled on simple shock cords (bungee). It was a no brainer. We worked out a way to make them instantly adjustable, and they are extremely effective in securing the load. It's what we had already been successfully securing our ladders with for years anyhow. It took some time to come up with a simple way to keep them up and away from the front of the pin, but we tackled that as well.
When people are first introduced to the system they are shocked with how simple it is in terms of actual components, and then they question the use of the shock cords, but then they see just why we did what we did. And believe me. We tried many other methods for doing the same job. It all came back to cost, simplicity, failure potential, and ease of use, and this method outshines all other possibilities.
It worked like a charm and held the ladder even better than we could have expected. We even tried to make it fail. It just wouldn't happen. It wouldn't fall off the catch, and didn't rattle when we were going down the road. It held the ladder in perfect suspension!
Note and interesting fact: We have made numerous design changes so that it would be manufacturable, and had no sharp edges to snag clothing or whatever as well as built several prototypes that more closely matched the current design; however, until a couple of months ago when we got out first usable manufactured samples I never removed this first unit, and cycled it hundred of times (if not more) without even a minor failure from the any part of the system. In fact, if I put it back in, I'm sure it would continue to work flawlessly for a long time to come. And that was before we found even better quality shock cords and so on.
I was lucky enough to have already made a contact with one of the most easy going and talented CAD guys I have ever known. I could get the idea on paper well enough, and he could do his magic as if he invented computer-aided-design himself. I can't really say enough about this guy since he made this part of the process so easy for us. We even had this guy sign a confidentiality agreement with this one since we knew we didn't want to take any chances.
We had 3D computer models made, we made changes, we made it adjustable and with interchangeable heads... we did all we could think of. And then we knew we had a good product... We just had to see what the public thought of it before we got even deeper into this little project.
For one, I knew we had to be able to protect the product before showing it off to the public, and we have retained the services one of the most powerful and capable firm of attorneys ever assembled for the sole purpose of patent and intellectual property rights protection. They don't advertise on late night TV, and they don't mess around. We wanted to make sure we had a team with the resources and knowledge to protect the patent internationally. We were fortunate enough to find these guys in a massive office high above the streets of downtown Chicago. It was clear that while these guy would not be the least expensive way to go, that they were fair and accomplished far beyond anybody we had known before.
As it goes, anything worth protecting is worth protecting as well as you can afford to.
So, with the work being done on our provisional patent application we signed up at the International Hardware Show in Chicago so that we may see if there was a real interest in the JET RACK(tm) system and to search for manufacturing opportunities etc.
That show was a major success for us.
That was our first show...
I'll tell you more about that, and what's been going on since then in my next loooong post.. Or two...
I told you I could go on for a long time. I hope it's not too painful, and I hope it can inspire and educate those who are facing similar situations. It's definitely a process that can chew you up and spit you out, so to do it the right way takes a lot of time, effort, commitment and money.
We could say we've been lucky, but we didn't get this far on luck alone.
If you read this far. Then thanks for listening, and I hope you'll hear the rest when I tell it. Soon.
So many people have asked me so many questions, so many times. It doesn't hurt to share a little info and spread the word at the same time.
There really is so much more to tell, it's just figuring out what's relevant.