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Monday, July 15, 2013

Can one man have a breakthrough in something as basic as screw threads? I’m dubious, but intrigued

David Brooks

Dale Van Cor has a brilliant-sounding idea, a whole new approach to creating the threads on screws or nuts and bolts, that he has spent years perfecting.

He thinks it could have a big impact in industries as disparate as auto parts, sewer pipelines and nuclear power plants. He has done his homework and gives a good, convincing presentation. ...

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Dale Van Cor has a brilliant-sounding idea, a whole new approach to creating the threads on screws or nuts and bolts, that he has spent years perfecting.

He thinks it could have a big impact in industries as disparate as auto parts, sewer pipelines and nuclear power plants. He has done his homework and gives a good, convincing presentation.

But he’s almost certainly wrong.

Van Cor’s idea involves shaping thread design with a circular curve that he says lets the nut and bolt sides to fit together so tightly that the threads act as a seal without a gasket, holding so tightly via friction that his prototypes, made on 3-D printers, are difficult to unscrew.

This design, which he calls “wave thread,” looks odd because the heads are tapered rather than cylindrical, which means they must be fitted to specific bolts rather than general ones. This limitation is worth it, he says, because by his own analysis they distribute stress so well that they are at least 20 percent stronger than standard threads, and they cannot be overtightened, because the entire thread surface has the same amount of energy.

Van Cor is calm, rational, experienced, has thought things through, has patents, and doesn’t compare himself to a persecuted Galileo or see industrial conspiracies around every corner. In other words, he’s not a crank. And I must say his prototypes are very convincing; they screwed together easily but were a real pain to unscrew, just as he said they would be.

So why do I think he’s wrong? Not because I spotted errors in his stress concentration graphs, or noticed flaws in his tests, or even know much about this topic.

It’s simple probability.

Thousands, probably millions, of lone inventors have been certain over the years that they’ve made breakthroughs overlooked by existing experts, but very-nearly-zero of them have actually done so.

Most are fooling themselves, overlooking flaws from wishful thinking or tunnel vision, and becoming convinced by self-designed tests that don’t show what they purport to show.

Particularly when dealing with a mature topic like screw-thread design, which has been engineered within a micron of its life over the past century, it’s sensible to assume that such folks are wrong – because they usually are.

Van Cor, 57, who lives in tiny Winchester in the state’s southwestern-most corner, acknowledged this obstacle when visiting The Telegraph last week as part of a publicity tour of newspapers.

“I appreciate your honesty,” he said after I told him of my feelings. He has faced this skepticism from industrial contacts, academics and defense folks for years, he says.

Van Cor’s background doesn’t really help his pitch. He has a 1978 management/psychology degree from Keene State and his business experience is in software, and he is a self-described “serial inventor” with many patents to his name but no marketed products.

He says a lack of funds has blocked some of the work that would help convince others, such as “destructive tests,” in which items are stressed until they break to measure their strengths. “I only have one destructive test, which is useless,” he said. Without evidence, he can’t get funding – catch-22.

He hopes that the new-ish arena of crowd-funding will bridge the gap. He chose Rockethub, rather than Kickstarter or Indygogo, because it focuses more on science and technology projects.

“I’m trying to bypass a lot of institutions because of so much resistance I’ve encountered,” he said.

His Rockethub project is seeking $18,000 to create a downloadable library of some 2,000 computer files with wave-thread versions of the 57 standard sizes in what are known as the Unified Thread Standard list. (Yes, 57 of them – screw threads are more complicated than you think.)

This will allow people free access to files so they can print wave-threaded items themselves.

“I want to get this out to as many people as possible. This is not just a funding platform but an advertising platform,” he said of Rockethub.

His hope is that an engineer somewhere will be intrigued enough to get her or his firm interested in wave-thread items, because even with the marvels of 3-D printing, it still takes a business with a business-sized wallet to produce items in industrial quantities.

“This is a way to have ideas flow to where people have access to them,” he said. “I hope it’s the same with money.”

With any luck, crowd-funding and 3-D printing will be the boost he needs, and in a few years I’ll be writing more about Van Cor and his astonishing breakthrough, eating a little crow in the process.

But I doubt it.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).