Helena Invention Could Reshape Global Auto Body Industry

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 225 views 

Editor’s note: This article, written by Jeanni Brosius, appears in our latest magazine edition of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read at this link.

When Shelley Haynes took her son’s truck to a local body shop for repairs in 2010, she never dreamed that she and the body shop owner, Wesley King, would become good friends and ultimately launch a product that could change the global auto body industry forever.

“Wesley showed me several things he made and asked me to help him find out about patenting,” said Haynes, CEO of Shelwes Tools and Equipment.

At the time, Haynes was a science and English teacher at Marvell Academy in Marvell, Ark.  King’s body shop was outside of West Helena on Highway 49 on Hayne’s route to school.

As she looked at King’s ideas, she fell back on her science-fair experience to help pave the way for the invention of the Shelwes Automatic Contour Sander. She also began taking classes through the Helena Entrepreneur Center for Business, a small-business incubator operated through a partnership between the UA-Phillips Community College and Thrive, a nonprofit community and economic development design firm.

She and King worked with the center on testing and development of the tool for more than three years. Shelwes continues to operate out of the incubator, where its manufacturing facility and business offices are both located.

The auto body sander was launched at the 2013 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) automotive trade show in Las Vegas in November.

“Starting the patent process with Wesley, along with developing the Automatic Contour Sander and entering the SEMA trade show was very much like a science fair,” she said.

There were more than 2,000 products submitted for judging, including the Shelwes sander.

“To our pleasant surprise, we found out at the New Products Breakfast—the kickoff of SEMA—that we won runner-up in two different categories: Best New Tool and Equipment and Best New Collision Repair and Refinish Product,” Haynes said.

The sander was competing against products developed by industry giant 3M and other well-known companies. The judges rated the products based on superiority of innovation, technical achievement, quality and workmanship, consumer appeal and marketability.

“We had a great reception at SEMA and lots of interest in our tool,” Haynes said. “We’ve been filling orders since we returned, receiving orders from all over the nation. We’ve had a lot of interest from Canada and other countries as well.”

Because there’s no other product like it on the market, Shelwes has a patent pending on the sander due to its technologically innovative design to cut labor time for sanding jobs.

What makes the Shelwes Automatic Contour Sander so different from others?

It automatically conforms to the sanding surface, no matter how curved or irregular. Because of that conforming ability, the workflow doesn’t stop to make adjustments or to change tools.

“The body men who help us test it, say they will not go back to the ‘caveman way’ of sanding again,” Haynes said. “It is our hope that anyone whose work requires sanding technology has this tool. It can be used on military vehicles, planes, boats, automobiles, just about any surface that needs to be sanded.”

Mike Green worked with King for several years, and he recently opened his own body shop in West Helena. Green said he admires King’s innovative mind.

“He’s always thinking outside of the box…. He’d thought about (the sander idea) for years,” Green said. “It’s easy to think about it, but a lot harder to actually do it. It’s a really neat product, and it eliminates a lot of labor time.”

By saving time, it also saves the body shops money by increasing profits. Haynes said labor rates have not gone up in the past seven years.

“The rates are pretty much regulated by the insurance companies, and while the cost of everything else has gone up, labor rates have not,” she said.

This was the problem that led to the idea of the sander by King, who has more than 30 years of auto body experience. He believed there was a need to find a way to get the job done more efficiently because sanding is the most time-consuming job in the industry.

Green agrees that the new sander saves a lot of labor time.

“I’ve always been kind of old-school, but we’ve been using the sander since we opened. You don’t have to manipulate everything with your hands (as with other sanding tools). It’s a lot easier—almost like you’re cheating,” Green said with a laugh.

Green said many times insurance companies don’t want a panel replaced on a car – instead they want it repaired.

“I was doing a job about three weeks back on an Infinity with a damaged quarter panel,” Green said. “The sander turned sideways and wrapped around the area. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

The sander is 100 percent manufactured in the United States at Shelwes Tools and Body based in Helena.

Winning the SEMA awards gave Haynes and King instant recognition worldwide.

“It proved that small-town America can still compete,” Haynes said. “Launching not only our product, but also our company at a worldwide event and receiving such recognition has helped with advertising on a global scale while giving us that SEMA stamp of approval that so many in the auto body industry recognize and trust when looking for new products and ways to improve quality and workmanship.”

Although, Haynes said she can’t predict the future, she knows that each person who needs sanding technology will benefit from using one of the Shelwes sanders.

“The savings will trickle right back to the customers who pay less and the insurance companies who pay less,” she said. “And everyone knows that a dollar saved is a dollar spent somewhere else, which is what makes our economy strong.”