Thinking Out of the Box: Driving Safety Through Innovation

How many times have you heard “this is how we’ve done it for years” and watched an idea get stopped in its tracks? My guess is, that type of thinking has stopped many great ideas that could have changed how we live and do business today. Many of those ideas could have been a safety solution and may have resulted in saved lives.

It is not every idea that meets the proverbial brick wall. Many flourish, and from those there is much that can be learned.  The story behind some of these innovations and emerging technologies is a story unto themselves speaking to courage and commitment of individuals passionate about that in which they believe. The creation of great things often occurs as the result of blood, sweat and tears by those who created it. In our electrical industry today, we leverage technology and even codes and standards documents that were not born without their share of hard work.

Behind emerging technologies are the individuals who believed they could make a difference. Our challenge is to learn from those examples and implement similar thinking in our businesses, especially where safety is concerned. It is easier to be the person who stops emerging technologies than it is to be the one who does not give up on a great idea.

Industry Leaders

I often think about how it would feel to go to an event, or walk into an office, and meet George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison or someone that has historically changed our industry and whom I have read about in books. Imagine having been in the industry to watch Edison and Westinghouse duke it out over AC and DC solutions. Then I look around me and realize that I am meeting people today that are changing history and whom books will talk about years from now and ask myself what am I doing today to learn from them. I recognize those that history books will not see but who have done more for this industry than many others who receive all of the glory. Look around you at your next IAEI meeting and think about how those around you are impacting our industry.  I do that today, and I recognize so many leaders in our industry that it overwhelms me. I have been to State Code adoption meetings and watched these leaders in our industry fight for safety. I have watched those who were driven to reduce safety meet defeat and unfortunately sometimes succeed. Yes, we have won some, and we have lost some but that should never deter our positive attitude about the next opportunity ahead of us. We’ve just found some more ways to fight for safety that didn’t work.

From a historical perspective, when we think of people like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and even Albert Einstein, we picture very successful individuals. We probably wouldn’t expect that Einstein’s parents thought he was mentally handicapped because he did not speak a word until he was four and couldn’t read until he was seven. You may not believe me when I tell you that Henry Ford went broke five times before succeeding. Five times!  I wonder what drives a person to get back to the grindstone after not one, not two but five failures. It just may be the same type of person who—after failing many times to create a light bulb—said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I recently moved into a new role with Eaton as part of the Bussmann organization and have been introduced to individuals who are having a big impact on our industry. For some time now I have admired an innovative solution that took the fuse as we have known it for years and changed it. As I sat down with those that were behind this solution, the Edisons and Teslas of today, I learned of details that you will probably never find in a history book. I got to learn first-hand how change comes to our industry, and I would love to share what I learned with you.

How We’ve Done It for Years

Step back in time to October 14, 1890, when images in Thomas Edison’s patent (Patent US438305) revealed the fuse and fuse block, with the fuse being a cylindrical tube encapsulating the fuse wire, which was found, before this time, in open air.

Edison noted in his patent of that year: “My invention relates to fusible safety-catches or lightning-protectors for telephones, telegraph, and similar circuits, in which the fusible wire is placed in an inclosing shell or chamber of insulating material; and my object is to prevent or diminish the liability to surface creeping of lightning or other powerful current along the outside of such shell or chamber.

The first cylindrical overcurrent protective device was born and, for all practical purposes, is arguably not all that different from what we know and love today in the fuse. The fuse has seen changes since the 1890s in many ways. Except for the 1891 patent by Henry Ball (US460548), which leveraged the Edison screw-in base being used for light bulbs at the time and called the Plug Fuse (figure 2), one iconic characteristic has remained. The characteristic that many of us use to recognize immediately a fuse as a fuse is indeed that basic round cylindrical tube physical construction.

Over the years, most of the changes in the fuse have occurred within the tube. For example, in 1899 W. M. Mordey’s patent (US622511 A) filled the tube of the fuse with a substance to address the difficulty of preventing the formation of dangerous or objectionable arcs during an interruption.

William Mordey noted, “In constructing fuses according to my invention the fusible conductor, which consists of a thin wire, or it may be two or more such wires or a strip of thin foil or sheet metal, (the metal used being preferably copper in all cases,) is supported in a glass tube or other suitable vessel or box. This type or vessel is then partly or wholly filled with finely divided or pulverized non-conducting or badly conducting material, preferably incombustible or non-inflammable – such as dry chalk, marble, bath-brick, sand, mica, emery, asbestos, or the like . . .”  His was the first of many changes that occurred inside that tube.

Between Edison, Mordey, and a host of others since, the fuse has become a very effective, efficient, and fine-tuned device that protects from overcurrents. The form factor of a basic tube-like physical arrangement has been the case for many years. That is, until an engineer and a small team decided to think outside the box and challenge the status quo (figure 1). The change presented a much safer solution for the market, but how it came to be is a great example of how emerging technologies come with effort.

Driving Your Vision Takes Courage

After years of hearing customer feedback and recognizing a need for a safer solution, one engineer had an idea that attacked a facet of fuse design that has arguably not changed since the 1890s. This idea did not come without resistance because after all, “this is how we’ve done it for years.”

In this case, a small team of engineers believed in the design that they created. They met all of the brick walls you possibly could imagine, and at times success seemed impossible. Funding was a struggle and hours were long, but this team worked hard to help the right people understand the value it had to the market and the organization. They had an idea that changed how we look at a fuse.

The design:

  • Enabled the replacement of a fuse without exposure to energized parts.
  • Prevented contact with an energized part while the fuse was not in its holder.
  • Reduced the footprint up to 70% providing, in many cases, more space for work.
  • Prevented an incorrect size fuse from being placed in its holder.
  • Permitted the replacement of a fuse without removing the dead-front of the panel within which it was located.

These traits of the design targeted safety but came with the price of accepting a fundamental change in how you look at a fuse. The fuse went from the round cylinder that it has been for years to a square bodied device. I refer to this as going from tube to cube. The design was accepted internally to the organization and by the market, but only because three individuals did not give up in their pursuit. These individuals were changing how business has been done since the 1890s. That is a lot of history to overcome, but the fruit of their labor has increased safety in our electrical industry. As I sat with one of the members of that team and talked about how these design changes came to fruition, I realized how hard it was for them and how the odds were stacked against them. However, his short answer said it all: “We believed in it.”

Make This Lesson Work for You

The next great emerging technology may be how you do business in a new and different way. Approach safety as these design engineers approached a new product that changed how this organization does and what they have been doing for more than 100 years.  Have a passion for safety and what you believe in, and push for changes that will increase safety for your organization. Don’t give up, listen, and have an open mind to continue and grow your ideas. If you are in a leadership role within your organization, be the stimulus for creating the environment for capturing and nurturing ideas on increasing safety. If your organization has an existing program in place, help it succeed. Lives may depend on it.

As always, keep safety at the top of your list and ensure you and those around you live to see another day.

Thomas A. Domitrovich
Thomas Domitrovich, P.E., LEED AP, is vice president of technical sales at Eaton, as well as an electrical engineer. He is actively involved with various electrical industry organizations, focusing on the continued growth of electrical safety. He sits on NFPA Code Making Panel 2 for the continued development of the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70).