New and improved electrical products and tools promising to "save time," "be faster" and "install easier" roll out by the dozens each month. But with today's shortage of electrical workers and strong construction economy, some contractors and electricians can't wait for manufacturers to respond to their needs. Instead, they're developing time- and labor-saving devices in the job-site trenches. Co-workers or employees applaud the devices and urge the inventors to take the products to market. Those innovators with a strong entrepreneurial spirit begin the journey through patenting, start-up costs, manufacturing, marketing and the like. To successfully make the journey, inventors agree the recipe calls for lot of hard work mixed with a little bit of luck.

Brothers Thomas and Joseph Shaffer revel in their good fortune developing the Mud Plug, which protects electrical boxes during drywall installation. "Joe and I will be sitting having dinner and we'll say, 'Can you believe how things have fallen into place here?'" Thomas Shaffer said. "It's almost eerie. Whenever we needed to have something happen, it happened without us actually going out and searching for it."

For instance, while spending time at a lake over a holiday weekend, they ran into Randy Humphrey, a design engineer and mold maker. They were researching plastic injection molding at the time. "We talked with him a little bit about what would be the best way and what kind of plastic," Shaffer said. Humphrey ended up testing six different types of plastic for the brothers and was such an integral to the product's development he was made a partner.

When looking for a company to do the injection molding, Shaffer talked and corresponded with as many as 10 different injection molders across the country. "Low and behold - the least expensive was right here in the Springs, and they were only about two miles from us," Shaffer said. MoldRite Products, Inc., Colorado Springs, Colo., makes the Mud Plugs. Shaffer appreciates the convenience of having MoldRite so close. "If we need to change anything or we want to do a test, I can spin in there anytime. I don't have to go across the country or have things shipped to me."

The idea of the mud plug wasn't a lightning-strike inspiration. With two other brothers who are licensed electricians and their father who is a master electrician, developing the idea for the Mud Plug was a family affair. "It's always been something that we've talked about, and we decided to go ahead and file a patent application on it," Shaffer said.

The simple pressure-fitted device covers electrical boxes, protecting them from routers, joint compound and other perils of drywall installation and new-construction finishing. The Mud Plug is available for both residential and commercial single-gang and double-gang installations. It eliminates the need to clean or repair an electrical box.

The two brothers founded Shaffer Development and Distribution Inc., Colorado Springs, Colo., about a year ago and have patents or patents pending on several electrical products. Shaffer said they decided to develop the Mud Plug first because it was the easiest to produce and the most inexpensive. "We don't have the deep pockets like (big manufacturers)," Shaffer said.

Still, Shaffer said they've invested well over $100,000 in the Mud Plug. The products are made with injection molding, and Shaffer said each mold cost anywhere from $15,000 to $28,000 a piece. Shaffer said the financial challenges have been their biggest obstacle, but he said that is changing. "Now that the product is getting into electrical supply houses, I'm not concerned about the cash-flow situation."

Certainly, getting products into distributorships can be an obstacle. "It's really hard for the little guy to get out there," said Doyle Elder, inventor of the Wire Wagon, which got its start in October 1998. Elder, an Arapaho, Okla., electrician of 22 years, saw a need for a product that would make wire handling easier around the job site. Elder built a few prototypes and eventually came up with the Wire Wagon, a portable workbench/wire dispenser/conduit cart. After taking it to job sites and getting a good response from his co-workers, he made a few minor adjustments and sold two to the contractor he was working for at the time. Then, in Oklahoma City, he sold four more to contractors in less than three hours. "Within a couple of weeks, I quit my job and went into business," Elder said.

Since then he's been busy manufacturing and marketing his product. "Starting out we had absolutely zero name recognition, and we've been building that slowly." By targeting electrical contractors through mailings, advertising in CEE News and Electrical Contractor magazines and exhibiting at trade shows, Elder said the product is beginning to get some name recognition. The Wire Wagon won one of 25 Show Stopper awards at the NECA show last fall and is beginning to be picked up by distributors.

"There's so much we've had to learn. We've just taken it one step at a time," Elder said. Rather than learn by trial and error, Elder has sought advice whenever possible from those in the know. He said Oklahoma's Small Business Development Authority gave him leads and was helpful when it came to navigating through legal procedures like patenting. He expects to get a patent this month for the Wire Wagon. An "acquaintance of an acquaintance who was a safety engineer" helped him by analyzing the product and the manufacturing process. To manufacture the Wire Wagon, which comes in two models, Elder rents space in a facility in nearby Weatherford, Okla. "We were real lucky to be able to rent a space in a manufacturing facility," Elder said. "We were able to use a lot of tools that they already had." He said his small work force is kept busy meeting orders.

Brian Ray is also busy meeting orders for his Li'l Tugger cable puller, which is now marketed by Greenlee Textron. Ray, an electrical contractor of 18 years, came up with the idea out of frustration over tying up five workers while doing a 300-ft cable pull at an Arizona service station. For small- and medium-sized jobs, such as pulling 300-ft runs of bundles of #10 AWG, #12 AWG or #14 AWG wire through _ in. conduit, the cable puller can finish the job in minutes.

"We were on a job and we had three guys pulling on the cable and two guys feeding it," said Ray, the owner of Ray Practical Technologies, Ltd., Mesa, Ariz. "I said, 'This is ridiculous,' and went down to the truck and grabbed a drill and an 18-in. drill bit, and then slid a piece of PVC over the top of it. The bell end of the PVC fit right over the chuck of the drill. I cut off a piece of the PVC, drilled three little holes where it fit into the hole of the chuck, and wrapped a rope around that piece of PVC. It worked great."

Ray then designed a frame that would hold the drill and provide easy access to an on/off switch. He bought $50 worth of parts at a Home Depot and built a working prototype. "It was a real rough prototype, but it worked," he said. "I talked with different people and they said, 'We have to get this marketed.' So, I went to a machine shop and had a prototype built. Once I did that, I rounded up some investors. I figured I needed to get this on the market." Ray applied for patents for the device and got several investors to pool about $100,000 to begin manufacturing the Li'l Tugger. One of his first big breaks was convincing the president of Edson Electric Supply, Inc., Phoenix, Ariz., to stock the pullers in his five Phoenix area branches. He also got Crescent Electric Supply to stock the device in its Tempe, Ariz., branch.

Then, through a contact made at Crescent Electric Supply, Ray was able to take the product national. Paul Maloney, a regional salesperson from Greenlee Textron, Inc., Rockford, Ill., saw the Li'l Tugger and told Ray to give Ken Hagemeyer, director, product management, a call. Hagemeyer found the product intriguing. "When we heard about it, I immediately recognized the void that it filled and that it made sense," recalls Hagemeyer.

After signing a disclosure statement with Greenlee, Ray sent Hagemeyer a video of the product. Hours after watching the video, Hagemeyer invited Ray to Greenlee headquarters to hammer out an arrangement for Greenlee to market the Li'l Tugger. In May 1999, Greenlee renamed the product the Li'l Tugger and launched it through its distribution network. Ray in now manufacturing the product for Greenlee at a machine shop in Arizona.

Ray's success story marketing his product with the help of a big manufacturer isn't all that unique. Contractors and electricians often seek manufacturers to market, produce and/or distribute their products.

"We have a lot of contractors that come to us with ideas," said Tom Stark, president, Arlington Industries, Inc. The Scranton, Pa., manufacturer of metallic and nonmetallic fittings and connectors has introduced more than 300 products since 1990. Some of those products came from contractor ideas. "We're much more able-with our distribution base and the reps we have in place-to take the product to market than a one-product company," Stark said.

Stark said he's also seen a lot of electricians' product ideas that would never get off the ground for one reason or another. He's seen electricians spend money to patent ideas that they'll never be able to do anything with. "One of the things I've found is many times the idea is a good idea if the product could be manufactured at a reasonable cost," Stark said. "But their lack of knowledge about manufacturing makes it such that the idea is extremely costly (to manufacture) and prohibitive from that standpoint." Another potential problem is UL-listing requirements. Stark has seen plenty of ideas that are good until looking at the applicable requirements for UL listing. The idea is simply not listable; therefore it's not marketable.

Still, Arlington values input from contractors and is always on the lookout for new product ideas and ways to improve existing products - maybe even more than in the past because of the shortage of labor. Stark said some of their biggest new-product winners lower labor cost, are easier to install and cost less. But he also said that with a little bit of effort on the part of the distributor, higher-costing labor-saving products can be sold, too. "Electrical contractors are looking at time and labor-saving areas much more strongly than they used to because of the shortage of people," Stark said. "If contractors can't add additional people to their staffs, they can grow their sales by finding a way to get more work done with the same number of people. It's made contractors more open to trying things."

Trying new Arlington product prototypes is nothing new for electricians that frequent trade shows. "We go to as many trade shows as we can to get out in front of contractors and see what they like and don't like," Stark said. "That's where a lot of the ideas come from. We're showing them the latest version of a product, and they'll tell you what they like about it and what they don't like about it. A lot of that is fuel to take onto the next step and improve it further."

Jim Dollins, vice president, product development, AFC Cable Systems, New Bedford, Mass., agrees that the best new product ideas often come from the contractor. "As with most of our product development here, we take credit for it, but our customers are really the people who develop our products," Dollins said. "We're just very good listeners."

The idea for AFC's armored fiber-optic cable came from listening to contractors. Dollins said that as a lot of electrical contractors got into the datacom business they found that one of the common applications was to install plenum rated innerduct as a raceway and then pull the fiber-optic cable into that.

From their experience using AFC's MC cable, which comes prewired with conductors already in it and replaces the pipe-and-wire installation method (where you have to install the pipe and then you pull the wires into the pipe), contractors wondered if AFC could do the same with fiber-optic cable. With AFC's MC cable, contractors install it in one step instead of two. "Typically labor is about half the time,"Dollins said. "As a result of that, as contractors got into the datacom business, they said to us, 'Boy, we put this fiber-optic cable into plenum-rated innerduct. Do you think you might be able to manufacture an armoured fiber-optic cable that would replace the combination of plenum-rated innerduct and pulling fiber cable in?' So, we went to work on it."

For Dollins, listening for ideas like the one above means a lot of time in the field at trade shows, calling on contractors and consulting engineers. AFC also has a product development committee made up of consulting engineers, electrical contractors, electrical distributors, inspectors, etc. "They listen to our ideas and what we've heard from the field and they give us advice on whether we're doing something smart or dumb," Dollins said. "Or they give us advice on how to make our dumb things smart."

Making dumb things smart. That's what it's all about when it comes to developing and launching electrical products. That, and a little luck.