Wrench made by Penn United of Butler County copied by Sears, made in China, company claims
With Chinese labor costs so low, it's hard for American companies, especially small ones, to manufacture products in the United States.
But Dan Brown, owner of the Illinois-based Loggerhead Tools, thought it was important for his innovation, the Bionic Wrench.
When Sears Holdings Inc. agreed to sell the wrench, Brown enlisted the services of Penn United Technologies in Jefferson, Butler County, to manufacture it.
“There was no need for me to keep (the manufacturing) here, but I thought it was the right thing to do,” Brown said.
After selling more than 250,000 wrenches through the store last year, Brown said Sears started to drag its feet when it came time to order more for Father's Day. Then, as he was going to finalize Sears' Christmas order, Brown got a call from a customer.
The man said he had spotted a wrench that looked like the one Loggerhead made but with slight cosmetic differences and labeled under Sears' brand as the Craftsman Max Axess.
Making matters worse, the tool was made in China.
“We went from a strong wind at our backs to a smelly wind in our face,” Brown said.
Now Brown is in a legal battle with Sears over whether the retail giant infringed on his patent.
Meanwhile, Penn United Technologies has about 100,000 wrenches intended for Sears in its warehouse.
“We've been manufacturing the wrenches for about seven years,” said Keith Hammer, a project manager at Penn United. “We build the wrenches on a forecasted order, not the actual order.”
When Penn United found it would not make more wrenches, it did not hire 30 seasonal employees it usually employs at Christmas time.
Hammer said the company, which employs more than 600 people, won't suffer too much of a financial setback because of the loss of the Sears deal.
“I think they'll sell, but maybe not all at once,” he said. “Not too many places would take as much product as Sears.”
For Brown's company, the cost might be much greater.
“We already had to lay off 30 people,” he said, “Sears was 60 percent of our business.”
Loggerhead filed a copyright infringement action against Sears on Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
In a written statement, Sears denied any wrongdoing.
“We take intellectual property rights very seriously and respect those rights,” the statement said. “The allegations made by Mr. Brown simply are untrue, and we will vigorously defend against all of the allegations raised in his lawsuit.
“Despite some visual similarities to other tools on the market, the Craftsman Max Axess locking wrench operates in a different way, using a mechanism designed in the 1950s that Mr. Brown expressly argued to the patent office was different from his own design.”
“I know I'm going to win,” Brown said. “But by the time it gets back to me, the price will probably be so low that I won't be able to make it in the States anymore.”
R.A. Monti is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.