By Eric Peterson | May 27, 2019
Auto glass repair and replacement tools
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Auto glass repair and replacement tools
Dan Wanstrath, an inventor (and Kerry's brother) launched GT Tools with a technological leap in a static market.
In the early 1980s, there was only one tool for auto glass repair involving a manual resin injection system. Dan's Vac-U-Pressure machine (later renamed the VP5000) had a reciprocating pump that created a vacuum; instead of compressing the air in the crack, it removed it before the resin injection.
"We had a machine," says Kerry, who joined the company in the fall of 1984 with a background in manufacturing. "[Competitors] had a manual system."
A single company had a lock on the market before GT commercialized Dan's invention. "Everybody tried to skirt around their patents," says Kerry. "We went completely the other way and tried to come up with something more technologically sophisticated and more powerful."
Vacuum pumps soon became an industry standard, and the breakthrough provided the seed for a broad catalog from GT Tools.
The Eliminator, dubbed "the world's first fully automated windshield repair system, took the market by storm in the 1990s. (The product was phased out in favor of the Maxim Windshield Repair System in 2014.) "That really set us apart," says Kerry. "We had a patent. We were protected for 20 years. . . . We became known as an innovator, and others would follow."
Now serving in an advisory role, Dan stepped back from day-to-day management in 1999. Kerry took over as president and continued leveraging innovation in the 21st century with LED-based UV curing systems and a "dry vacuum" injection system.
A big strategic shift came in 2012. "We decided to expand our product base to include replacement tools," says Kerry,
That came as a result of the windshield replacement industry getting into the repair business after shunning it. "For a number of years, replacement shops around the country were opposed to repair," says Kerry. "Insurance companies came to expect it and [replacement shops] started embracing repair. The two industries just melded together as it should have been since the beginning."
Glass replacement was also attractive to GT due to the scale of the market, he adds. Estimates hold that there are as many as 35 million windshields in the U.S. in need of repair or replacement at any given time. The annual repair market is about $1.5 billion, but the replacement market is at least four or five times that size, with some data indicating an $11 billion market. "You can see why we wanted to spread our wings," says Kerry.
As tolerances have gotten tighter, car manufacturers have largely eliminated molding from windshields. "It made it very challenging to remove the glass," notes Kerry. That led to a line of cord wire tools that help extract windshields without scratching them, as wire is prone to do.
He says 2019 marks a return to the company's roots. "Because we were focused for a number of years on replacement, we neglected the repair side."
The pivot led to the new Vanish Windshield Repair Kit, featuring precision-machined aluminum tools and a built-in UV-curing system. "LED lights have really improved in technology in the last 10 years," says Kerry. "These lights need 15 to 20 seconds to cure. Before, it would take two minutes."
It's not just more efficient in terms of time, it's also a superior repair. "A better crosslink and crosshatch occurs in the material," says Kerry. "It actually makes the repair stronger."
Growth has been steady, typically 5 to 10 percent annually. The company sells through a dealer network and online affiliates as well as direct to glass and auto body shops. GT Tools also distributes molding and other supplies.
The company is currently based in an 8,000-square-foot facility in Durango with a full CNC machine shop. "All our parts are small," says Kerry. "We're not making oilfield equipment. It's all parts you can fit in your hand."
Now utilized for prototypes, 3D printing looks like a good fit for production of some components in the next couple of years. Some of the work -- including five-axis machining -- is outsourced.
"All of our partners are in the U.S.," says Kerry. "I don't think I've ever seen it like this and I'm 69 years old. . . . The good [contract manufacturers] are so busy, it's hard for them to squeeze in the work."
Challenges: "We've been challenged to get the right people in here," says Kerry, noting that he's had to recruit from out of state. "We have great people but it takes a long time to find them."
Experienced CNC operators are always in high demand, he notes. "The unemployment rate for that person is less than 1 percent nationally. . . . Manufacturing is so challenged to find good people."
He adds, "People don't move to a tourist town to start a career. They move to Durango for quality of life."
Another challenge: "Insurance companies really control most of the repair and replacement industry. It's challenging for all the independent shops. That affects us because it affects the shops that are trying to compete with an international conglomerate."
Opportunities: The new Vanish repair system is one big opportunity for GT Tools, but it's not the only one. "In the last few years, we've seen most interest from auto body shops doing glass repair and replacement," says Kerry, noting that it's a notably larger industry than glass repair and replacement combined.
Exports are another potential area of growth, with targets in Europe, Asia, and South America. "We've always been strong in Japan," says Kerry. "The Japanese love innovation."
Needs: "Our next move will have to be a bigger building someplace because we're maxed," says Kerry.
Other than that, he's feeling good about GT Tools' prospects. "We're pretty much firing on all cylinders."