Extending the Utility of Firefighting Equipment: Clam Buddy by BlueFin CNC

While there wasn't an “A-HA!” moment for firefighter and inventor Tyson Schultz, there was an ongoing process of developing a new product for firemen that can both make their lives both easier and potentially safer.

Everybody talks about ideas for cool products with their friends or co-workers,” Schultz notes. “We say, 'I should do this' or 'I should do that', but we never do. This was one idea that I really pushed through.”

The idea first occurred to Schultz, who fights forest-fires for the State of Oregon, in late 2007. “As a firefighter, I might leave my truck or fire camp in the morning without a flashlight or a headlamp, but I'll never leave without my radio. My radio is my link to the outside world. Its how I find out what 's happening with the fire and everybody fighting it. This information is critical to everyone's safety. Without a radio, I am isolated and on my own.”

The de facto standard for radios in the fire-fighting world has long been the Bendix-King BK Radio. One reason it is the standard, according to Schultz, is that it hasn't changed size or basic design in probably 25 years. “If I buy a new radio today,” Schultz explains, “I could attach a 20-year-old battery and it would work perfectly. I could also buy a new battery and use it with a 20-year-old radio.”

Schultz notes that there are accessories that attach to a fireman's radio battery, such as cell-phone chargers or accessory lights, but while they are attached, the radio doesn't work. “So I decided there had to be a way to have a spare light or to charge my cell phone, have it always there and not have to disable my radio in the process.”

With that large installed base of radios in mind, Schultz set out to build an accessory that would fit in-between the Bendix-King radio and its battery. It would have lights and a 12-volt cigarette-lighter-style adapter on it, so it could charge cell phones, iPods or even GPS devices. And even with it in place, the radio would work.

Once he worked out the basic design, Schultz considered using plastic for the exterior shell, but was concerned that it might melt, so he opted for machined 6061 aluminum instead. Schultz originally planned to use 6 standard LEDs as a source of light, but instead chose to use three high-intensity LEDs. After picking a design scheme for the 12-volt power outlet and the charging circuitry, he was ready to give it a name.

In honor of the clamshell-style adapters many firefighters use to power their BK radios with AA batteries instead of NiCad rechargeables, he named his new accessory the “Clam Buddy”.

While Schultz did have a hobbyist's basic knowledge of CAD and design, “I had never even seen a CNC machine before.” he notes with a chuckle. “I had an old manual Bridgeport from my woodworking hobbyist days and a friend who is a machinist, but his shop had industrial-sized equipment. “So I turned to the place where everybody goes looking for information – the Internet.”

Schultz looked for a milling machine that was within his budget but still capable enough to do his work and came from a supplier who provided excellent customer service. He found five possibilities but quickly narrowed his list to just two. “I liked the Tormach PCNC 1100 because it had the horsepower, rigidity and weight to do the job, but it was a little more expensive than the other mills. Tormach's reputation among users for excellent cdustomer service wound up being the deciding factor.”

“I knew what I wanted to do, but I just didn't know how,” Schultz says. “So I turned to the forums on the Internet like CNCZone, Schultz explains. “Members of all the Internet forums I posted on were willing to help me get started.” Schultz had been making prototypes on a manual Bridgeport, but each one took about six hours to make. He was thrilled to discover that his first prototype on his new Tormach mill took only one hour.

He uses a combination of three-flute end mills and drills, typically running at 4500-rpm and a feed rate of 18-inches-per-minute the mill the Clam Buddy casing.

“As I learned more about how to use the Tormach and to select the right tools, speeds and feeds, that time came down even more,” he says. He can now make the main casing in about 10 minutes. Schultz also machines battery cover plates, Plexiglas covers for the LEDs and the brass electrical connectors and plastic insulators that connect the Clam Buddy to the radio.

As his learning curve improved, Schultz taught himself how to program the Tormach mill directly, writing the G-code that is the native language of most CNC machines. “I taught myself G-Code so I could turn my Tormach into a lathe,” Schultz explains. “I have to mill small brass electrical contacts and even smaller insulators, but they are best done on a lathe, which I didn't want to buy. By putting my workpiece in the spindle and the tooling in a vice – the opposite of how it normally works – I turn my mill into a lathe.”

Schultz started selling Clam Buddies on E-Bay in October, 2008, and had his first order in less than 18 hours. Now that he has his own company, BlueFin CNC, LLC, and a website, he gets at least one order every day.

But for Schultz, the Clam Buddy provides more than just convenience. “Even if your batteries are so low the radio won't work, you'll still have enough power to charge your cell-phone,” he notes. In a dangerous and unpredictable environment like a forest-fire, that could be a life-saver.”