The simplest ideas are the best, as ex-bricklayer Tony Watkins discovered.
Kristina Smith visited the inventor of the Pre-Fix Gauge on site in Wales
WHERE did post-it notes come from? One minute we were leaving messages on scraps of paper which were likely to get lost or thrown out. The next, a flurry of little yellow stickies arrived on our desks, doors and diaries. Such a neat, simple idea. It makes you wonder why no one came up with it before.
Tony Watkins bricklaying gauge is just such a simple but effective and, with hindsight, obvious invention.
In essence, the Pre-Fix Gauge is just a ruler printed on to sticky-backed plastic. You stick it on the columns of steel-framed buildings and it shows you where to attach ties and where to build your bricks to. Easy.
To coin a phrase, necessity was the mother of Mr Watkins invention. Mr Watkins did a six-year apprenticeship as a bricklayer in the 1960s. By the 1990s he was a subcontractor and he found that many of the people he was employing did not have the skills he had learnt.
I was finding that, out of a team of 28 bricklayers, 10 would be very good but the others constantly needed monitoring. The buck stopped with me if my guys got out of gauge or missed out a tie, I was in trouble.
The idea of the Pre-Fix gauge came to Mr Watkins, he says, at four oclock on a February morning. Unsurprisingly, his wife was not convinced that it was a goer.
Mr Watkins was undeterred: I knew it would work in my own mind.
But he had trouble convincing anyone else. By 1991 he had a patent application well under way and had even begun to sell some gauge tape made by a local manufacturer. But to no avail.
'Trying to get companies interested was like banging my head against a brick wall,' he says.
A lucky break seemed to come when the then managing director of fixings manufacturer Ancon decided he liked the product.
But disaster struck. Ancon was involved in a takeover,became Ancon Clark and changed its managing director. Mr Watkins did have offers from Ancon Clark and from Sellotape to buy the patent, but they were just not good enough.
The final set-up is not quite as Mr Watkins envisaged. Sellotape is making the tape under license for Mr Watkins company. He is selling some to Ancon Clark as well as supplying and fixing it himself on site.
The idea of on-site service came to him in early 1994 when he was subcontractor on a job which he just couldnt make pay.
I left all the men behind on site. As I drove away I thought This is it. Im going to do what I know I can do, he says.
So Pre-Fix Gauge Systems Limited was born in March 1994 and has become a family affair. Mr Watkins sets up the contracts and is the main contact for sites. His son and son-in-law go out to the sites, fix the tape and screw the ties onto the steelwork. His daughter deals with wages and administration.
The service has really taken off and it is easy to see why. Pre-Fix Gauge Systems visits the site, attaches the tape and then fixes the ties wherever required. All the site engineer has to do is put one datum on a column. All the brickies have to do is lay bricks.
Normally, an engineer would be called upon to check with levels several times during the course of the bricklaying. And the bricklayers would have to measure from datum marks and fix the ties themselves.
Joe Doyle, a bricklaying subcontractor, and a great fan of the system, explains: While a man is looking for a drill, finding a fixing and then fixing it, he could have laid ten blocks, he says.
And, he adds, where coloured bands or other such features are included in the brickwork, having all the levels marked makes life much easier.
Mr Watkins estimates that bricklaying speeds increase between 15 and 30 per cent and that the accuracy of the gauge is 1 mm over 3 m. And, because Pre-Fix supplies all the fixings, as well as the tape, there is no wastage.
During the first year of trading, the firm had 84 contracts and a turnover of around 30,000. This year Mr Watkins estimates there will be 130 contracts.
'If we could get up to a turnover of half a million with a profit margin between 12 and 17 per cent, I would be really happy,' says Mr Watkins.
But for the time being, Mr Watkins wants to limit the growth. He knows how quickly things can get out of control.
The most important thing when you are starting something like that is the client, he says. I dont want to take on so many sites that I cannot look after them all properly.
But he would like to see more of the gauges being sold off the shelf.
In the meantime, he is very busy, working 12 to 14 hours a day.
But not too busy to turn his mind to certain other gadgets which could help the building industry, although he is keeping these to himself for the time being:
There are one or two other little things that I am kicking around, he says. I believe everyone has got a good idea in them.
Very soon there could be a lot more people wishing his first idea had been theirs.
I knock on the door and if they dont answer I kick it. If I can sell it to one agent, I know I can sell it to two. And if I sell it to two, I can sell it to four