After over 20 years as a sheet metal worker, Ron Aho’s body was starting to give out — his arm, especially. Years of swinging hammers overhead to hang ductwork had led to constant shoulder pain.

In 2013, a tear in his rotator cuff meant surgery and Aho had a longer than anticipated recovery time.

When he returned to his job at Dresseler Mechanical in Marquette, Michigan, he was soon installing 38- by 22-inch duct with a co-worker. Aho said he had always considered himself able to hang duct as well as anyone, but he found himself falling behind the younger employee.

“I realized after I was halfway done my arm was just exhausted,” he said.

Not ready to hang up his snips — but maybe his hammer — he started thinking about a better way to install the drive cleats that led to his injury. A couple years and several prototypes later, the result is the Tinknocker Tool, an invention that Aho said has made him almost as efficient as he was in his younger days. It attaches to any common rotary hammer drill that uses standard slotted drive system (SDS) shafts and has a setting to stop rotation of the drill chucks — typically known as “chisel mode” or “hammer mode.”

It cuts cleat installation time to a matter of seconds. And it saves wear and tear on the sheet metal installer’s arm and shoulder.

Officials with Sturgis, Michigan-based Midwest Tool & Cutlery Co. were so impressed with the device that they bought the rights and are now selling it. They brought it and Aho to this year’s AHR Expo in Chicago to introduce it to the HVAC industry. 

Tinknocker Logo

The Tinknocker Tool’s logo was created by students at Northern Michigan University.

Development

But Midwest Tool and the rest of the sheet metal industry might never have heard about the invention if it wasn’t for a program at Northern Michigan University that helped Aho test, refine and publicize the tool. That program is Invent at NMU, which helps inventors get their products ready for market while giving students an education in the design and marketing processes.

Executive Director Ray Johnson said the university’s program is designed to help inventors like Aho take their ideas “from the back of a napkin” to product launch. It’s partially funded by the state’s SmartZone program, which aims to accelerate business development by clustering the research and technology services startup companies need to grow and thrive. The Marquette area is one of 20 such zones throughout the state.

“All ideas are worth exploring,” said Johnson, who also works as CEO of Marquette’s SmartZone, which is administered through Michigan Economic Development Corp., a part public, part private entity. “Anybody who walks through the door with an idea, we’ll listen.”

In his case, Aho, 55, attended an open house two years ago sponsored by Invent at NMU at the urging of his wife, Cindy. Out of an estimated 150 attendees, Aho and his tool stood out, Johnson said.

“It became very clear: Hey, this is pretty interesting,” he said.

But using the university’s services is not free. Although Johnson said it costs far less than what a private invention services company might charge, officials required Aho to pay for the university’s help.

“You have to have skin in the game” as an entrepreneur, he said.

Working with the school’s mechanical engineering students, the university built 50 prototypes of the tool for field testing. Several more versions were built before the product was ready for sale and eventually purchased by Midwest Tool.

Countdown to launch

While it was being refined, the university’s art and design students worked on branding, and marketing program students helped draft promotional materials and a press release. An attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan, guided the filing of Aho’s patent paperwork. 

It was the press release put out by the program that caught the attention of news editors at WLUC-TV, the Marquette area’s NBC affiliate. The station profiled Aho and his tool in April 2017.

Among the people who saw the broadcast were executives with Midwest Tool. They were intrigued. Chuck Loparo, the company’s national sales manager, said that in an industry which doesn’t see a lot of truly new inventions, it was a real “new product.”

“We did a pretty thorough search and there’s nothing else like it on the market, and we like that,” Loparo said, adding that as a Michigan-based company they also liked that the inventor was from the same state.

Midwest bought the rights to the Tinknocker Tool from Aho in December 2017. They refined it further before bringing it and Aho to the recent AHR Expo, where Loparo said it was a big hit at the Midwest Tool booth.

It appears the tool might have more uses than Midwest officials originally thought. Residential HVAC contractors at the expo also expressed interest, Loparo said. 

“There was as much interest in using the tool to take cleats off,” he said, since it can quickly remove installed cleats that are covered in caulk or tape.

Loparo said Midwest has bought a few ideas from inventors in the past but this tool shows the most promise. 

Testimonials

It wasn’t just people in the sheet metal industry who were impressed with the Tinknocker Tool. Aho’s website, www.tin knockertool.com, includes a video testimonial from Dr. Wally Pearson II of the Advanced Center for Orthopedics and Plastic Surgery in Marquette. 

“It’s almost universal for people who do overhead activities that they are going to end up with some wear and tear — if not a full tear — of the rotator cuff,” Pearson said. “I have reviewed a video of the Tinknocker Tool and it makes perfect sense.”

The tool is currently available through Midwest or the Tinknocker website for $75, although the website listed the product as sold out during a recent check. It suggests contacting Midwest at midwest@midwestsnips.com.

While Invent at NMU has brought a number of products to market in the almost four years it’s been around, Johnson said Aho’s invention is the most successful one so far. Other products now being developed through the program deal with outdoor recreation, physical therapy and consumer electronics. The Tinknocker Tool is the first product for the HVAC industry the program has been involved with. 

“We’re looking forward to seeing how this tool gets launched,” Johnson said.

Aho is excited to see what happens next for his invention.

“I love it,” he said. “Now we’ve just got to sell a few thousand for people to realize that they’ve got to have this.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com.