I present for your consideration: the Sawstop. Watch the hot dog video on that site, and be impressed by the power of clever engineering.
The SawStop, for those of you too lazy to follow the link, is a table saw. Specifically, it is a table saw that is designed to save fingers: it runs a slight voltage through the spinning blade; if flesh makes contact, the saw senses the voltage drop caused by the body’s capacitance and in the blink of an eye – faster than a car’s airbag – shuts off the power to the saw and slams a cartridge into the spinning blade to bring it to an immediate halt. The blade also immediately drops below the table’s surface. The result, as you can see from the video, is an event that would otherwise lop off fingers only gives you a nick shallow enough to repair with a Band-Aid. It ruins your blade and you need a new cartridge after that ($50-100 for a blade, $69 for the cartridge), but that’s cheaper than an ER visit.
I went to a live demo of this sucker a couple of weeks ago, and the video doesn’t do it justice. You can almost feel the force of the cartridge slamming into the blade through the floor when you stand next to the saw. It’s damned impressive.
A little history: Steven Gass, inventor of the SawStop, holds degrees in physics and law and made his living as a patent attorney. He is also an amateur woodworker. One fine day he set his mind to preventing injuries caused by table saws – by far the most dangerous machine, statistically speaking, in most woodworking shops. And he came up with the system described above and patented it.
Mr. Gass invested time and effort in developing prototypes and then took his idea to saw manufacturers. To his chagrin, he was rebuffed. No table saw maker wanted to put the device on their saws, mostly out of liability concerns (manufacturers are insulated from liability for most injuries because the saw is “inherently dangerous” – something that might change if the brake was adopted). Manufacturers also claim Gass wanted too high a royalty for the patent.
Mr. Gass’ next step…well, let me get to that in a minute. It’s where the controversy arises.
Finally, Mr. Gass decided that the only way to gain acceptance for the idea was to actually build and market a table saw, which he has – as you can see from the link above. By all accounts, it is an excellent saw even without the saw brake, comparable to the very best table saws from Powermatic and the like. It has to be; it’s very expensive. It’s been out for over a year now and has garnered numerous awards and has saved many a finger in various pro woodworking shops. The point being: the saw and the saw brake each work, and work very well.
OK, so about that middle step. Gass decided to petition the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to make saw brake technology mandatory on all table saws. For this, he drew the ire of many woodworkers. Being a cantakarous and conservative lot, many of them hate the idea of letting anything but the market sort out whether the technology should be installed. Many say they won’t buy the saw on principle, even though they recognize its quality as a saw and the effectiveness of the safety device.
About two months ago, the CPSC agreed to start a rulemaking process on saw brake technology (the linked article, BTW, contains a more detailed history of this saga, and I recommend reading it).
So I’m curious to get this forum’s take on the issue. Some of the arguments against making the brake mandatory:
It picks a technology winner, and government shouldn’t do that because it’s bad at it.
It effectively mandates payments to a monopoly, since Gass owns the patent.
Sawmakers will eventually have to include this technology or something like it anyway, because the existence of the SawStop on the market opens other sawmakers up to lawsuits for failing to include the safety device on their saws. Thus, regulation isn’t necessary.
“Woodworking is safe if you are careful, and I shouldn’t have to subsidize the careless.” Essentially, the personal responsibility argument.
Government sucks, the free market rules. (The Ayn Rand argument.)
The argument for: there are a metric shitload of fingers that might be saved.
I suggest taking a look at the CPSC briefing package on saw brakes, as it provides some very interesting information. Note that any rulemaking, if undertaken, will not specifically mandate Gass’ patented method, but will instead be performance-based – it would require *any *method of reducing injury when the sawblade contacts flesh, rather than the Gass technique in particular.
Anyway, I find the whole thing just endlessly fascinating, and am curious as to what the SDMB brain trust will say on the matter. So have at it, folks.