Turns out it's far easier to stir up crowdfunding supporters for a survival tool — one its creator featured in a Kickstarter video as the go-to weapon to ward off zombies — than it is to find a U.S. manufacturer to make it.
Havertown inventor Marvin Weinberger launched that Kickstarter campaign two years ago, raising $123,310 from 1,302 people to help fund production of a multipurpose instrument he was calling Lil Trucker. Inspired by the needs of firefighters and outdoor adventurers, what looked like a part-ax/part-hammer featured much more, including a box cutter, a can opener, a gas-valve shutoff wrench, a seat belt cutter, a glass breaker, a wire twister, a nail puller, a pry bar, a range of hex sockets, and a saw.
The Kickstarter total was nearly five times the $25,000 goal, rendering serial entrepreneur Weinberger "blown away" and giddy about the sales prospects for his all-in-one gadget once it hit the retail market.
Until, that is, he got a taste of the manufacturing landscape when it comes to serving startups with relatively small orders.
"This has been a perennial problem for most startups in America," said Weinberger, 62, who did not want to compromise on his commitment to make the tool in the United States. "Most of the manufacturers who survived have tended to hunker down and become very specialized, and aren't looking to participate in projects where the upside is speculative."
Weinberger said he has spent much of the last two years going through "a series of [six] radical redesigns of the tool, just to make it more affordable to manufacture."
Most "led to dead ends with various manufacturers, who in the end really couldn't produce affordably that change," he said, citing original all-in costs close to $70. That would mean a retail price of $125 to $150. Weinberger was aiming for $89.
His needs were finally answered by a small, two-year-old investment-casting foundry in southern Utah. Bear Valley Precision Casting in Parowan, the seat of Iron County, was started by Jared Meibos, who had been a general manager for an aerospace casting facility in northern Utah when it was bought out. He decided to go into business for himself.
Meibos found Weinberger's project proposal on MFG.com, an online manufacturing marketplace, and immediately recognized its potential. He was impressed by the response to the Kickstarter campaign and by how well the Trucker's Friend, another tool made by Weinberger's Innovation Factory, has done — almost 20,000 sold since it went on the market for $59.95 in 2011.
With only a couple other customers, Bear Valley had the capacity to make the product Weinberger renamed Survival Axe Elite on the advice of retailers (they found Lil Trucker too "quirky," he said).
Meibos had some suggestions, too. "I told him, 'This isn't going to work. It's too big, too bulky. We need to redesign it, make it more ergonomic, and make it more functional.' "
They went from planning to make all the parts with cast steel, to keeping the core and tang — the projection of the blade that holds it firmly in the handle — steel but using die-cast aluminum and/or glass-filled nylon in the side panels.
The 6-inch replaceable blade that folds into Survival Axe Elite's handle is among the patents Weinberger has secured or has pending on the tool. The blade is made by Milwaukee Tool Co., producers of the internationally known Sawzall reciprocating blades.
"I would have loved to make [it] in Philadelphia, but I couldn't find anyone," said Weinberger, who in 2014 started Americancertified.com, an online marketplace of products made in the U.S. that he had to put "on hold" to pool resources for his Survival Axe Elite odyssey.
The Survival Axe Elite, whose shipment to generally patient Kickstarter backers began last week, is 11.7 inches long, weighs 1.6 pounds, and comes with a lifetime warranty from Minnesota-based Nifty Home Products, to which Weinberger has licensed the rights for an undisclosed royalty. The company is best known for coffee pod holders, cosmetic organizers, and other home accessories. Weinberger said he will help with the marketing of the Survival Axe Elite and intends to collaborate with Nifty on future products to be sold within its new Off Grid Tools line.
Not all the original Kickstarter supporters remained patient as Weinberger searched for a manufacturer.
"I've gotten some responses that were not fun, not fun at all," he said. Refunds totaling $6,235 were issued to 73 people.