Showing prospective customers an attractive return on investment is what the inventor of the “water closet” – precursor to the toilet – should have done in 1596. Perhaps then the world wouldn’t need to wait until the 18th century for the invention – originally developed at a cost of 6 shillings, 8 pence – to gain popular appeal. Promising financial gain, however, may not have quelled concerns. The public’s skepticism over new technologies, called a cultural gap, hampered this as well as other inventions: the train, for example, and the ball point pen.
In the early 1990s the infrared sensor witnessed another cultural lag; supposed to detect the presence of a hand under the faucet – and thereby activate the water – the invention, for the most part, did nothing but leave soapy hands. So touchless technology, while envisioned as a boon for public hygiene, was not considered by operators of public restrooms to be such a hot item. More innovation was needed. Technical Concepts, manufacturers of the successful TC® Touch-Free Restroom™ of the Future – an array of sink, soap and toilet systems that activate without human touch – is highly aware of the skepticism.
Among its new breakthrough inventions is the surround sensor that the company applies to its AutoFaucet®. This technology, says Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jerry McDermott, places a detection field all the way around the sensor so the water will activate no matter where the hand is placed. The AutoFaucet® reduces water use by as much as 70 percent – yielding an average 35 percent return on investment. And, says McDermott, if the technology isn’t enough to convince people, the 21st century savings will. To help facilitate customer placements, TC® has implemented some innovative acquisition programs. “What we do is put together a three-year financial program and subsidize the interest rate. If you’re getting a 35 percent return in items such as water, electricity, soap and maintenance, you can take those savings and apply them directly to the monthly financial charge,” with zero impact, he adds, on the net operating budget.
Such planning has not only realized gains for its customers but for TC® as well. The company more than doubled its sales in the last five years and posted a 15 percent gain in 2002 over the prior year. While making inroads into the market, Vice President of Finance Dave York says the company realizes there are many doubters, turned off by the old infrared technology. “We have a large unpenetrated market out there,” he remarks. “Many people, if you go back five years, had bad experiences with the older technology that didn’t work.” But the philosophy at Technical Concepts is aligned closely with the expressed needs of those who use and maintain public bathrooms; by reinventing restroom use, the company is flushing out those old points of view. Says President and CEO George Murphy: “We have an intimate understanding of how to invent system solutions for away-from-home washrooms and washstations that’s our background and what we do better than anyone in the world. We want to be the absolute best at inventing, developing, manufacturing and marketing these touch-free systems.That’s where we put our resources, and focus.”
Technical Concepts, Mundelein, Ill., was formed in 1987 as a subsidiary of a leading North American home-fragrance products company. Capitalizing on the parent company’s unique expertise in fragrance technology, Technical Concepts launched the very popular Neutralle® line of odor-control products in January of 1988. In 1989, TC® was established as an independent Limited Partnership Company. Technical Concepts International was established in 1991 to better service the European, African, and Middle Eastern markets. In 1995, TC® opened its Asia Regional office to better meet the needs of its Asian customers.
Early in 1997, TC® made the strategic decision to expand the scope of its product offerings from its original focus on odor-control products to a comprehensive array of technologically advanced touch-free solutions for the away-from-home washroom. Since that time, the company has developed a unique array of products that address not only odor-control issues, but hygiene and sanitation as well. Beginning with the introduction of the AutoFlush® and AutoHygiene™ systems, TC® expanded its total washroom offerings to include its technologically advanced AutoFaucet® in 1999 and its revolutionary OneShot® autosoap system in the fall of 2000. In early 2001, TC® began to aggressively market its integrated washroom solutions as the TC® TouchFree Restroom™ with unprecedented success. Technical Concepts took another step forward in February when it was purchased by Senior Management and Liberty Partners, a New York-based private equity firm with over $1.8 billion in assets under management. Liberty was joined at the senior and subordinated debt levels by American Capital Strategies, Ltd. (Nasdaq: ACAS). The acquisition, in Murphy’s view, placed TC® in “a prime position for expanding our new product development efforts and for extending our reach to new geographic markets throughout the world.”
Look ma, no hands
The public’s concern over cross-contamination has grown substantially over the last decade; market studies conducted by TC® and others have shown heightened customer concerns for cross-contamination when using public facilities. “People are increasingly looking for germ-free environments,” Murphy explains. “They want to see improved hygiene, sanitation and cleanliness in public facilities.” Experiencing exponential growth from its touch-free systems, the company has, in turn, transferred this success to its OEM partners. “Their customized washroom automation system sales have also experienced strong growth,’’ he adds.
And the company continues its leading edge development strategies on its comprehensive line of touch-free systems. In addition to the AutoFaucet® panoramic sensor, TC® has developed two new AutoFlush® systems. The first clamps on to existing toilet and urinal flush handles. It acts as an “accessory” without having to replace the existing handles. The second system is a tank AutoFlush® product; placed inside the tank, it automatically lifts the flapper to flush the toilet (rather than having the flapper activated by pulling the handle).
“The biggest benefit,” says McDermott, “is that it eliminates the problem of unflushed toilets. The system also eliminates the need to touch contaminated flush handles.”
McDermott adds that the problem with earlier, touch-free technologies developed by competitors had to do with their use of solenoid valves, which failed over time, because water came into contact through the valve with the electronic components. “There’s condensation and corrosion and the valve gets stuck,” he says. TC® utilizes “cam gear” technology, which ensures that the electronics are not exposed to water.
The touch-free experience
Following are components of Technical Concepts ‘Touch-Free Restroom‘:
• AutoFlush® – ensures urinals and toilets are always flushed; fixtures stay clean, odor-free and presentable. The system features an easy, two-minute installation and battery replacement. It eliminates the need to touch the flush handle – a major point of cross-contamination. It also eliminates scrubbing and leaves the surface sanitary.
• AutoFaucet® – offers increased sanitation and hygiene; plus the “No-Touch” advantage eliminates a major source of cross-contamination. The AutoFaucet® also specializes in cost control. It immediately reduces waste by eliminating unnecessary and unintended water flow. Breakthrough cam gear technology introduces a new way to control water flow and eliminates sticking solenoid valves that cause dripping.
• OneShot® touch-free autosoap system – solves the biggest washroom problem: non-working soap systems. The system improves user health and wellness by promoting handwashing and by reducing cross-contamination associated with touching conventional soap dispensers. The system features a new patented pump and delivery tube in each refill that eliminates costly dispenser repairs and replacement parts and ensures that the dispensers always work. The system avoids the unsightly dripping and clogging problems associated with traditional, manual countermounted soap systems.
• Automatic odor-control products – eliminate the “unavoidable” washroom odors and leave a fresh clean scent. This line includes the revolutionary Microburst® 3000 and Microburst® 9000 aerosol systems.
Vice President of Manufacturing Sean Bellinger divides the company’s products into two areas: hardware (dispensers and fixtures) and consumable refill products The company’s hardware products are manufactured in Taiwan and Malaysia. The two outsourced manufacturing facilities are exclusively dedicated to the assembly and production of TC®’s product mix. Bellinger employs a team of engineers and other personnel to oversee design, specification adherence and quality standards. The production of refills is outsourced to contract fillers and manufacturers of its air care products, soaps and chemical cleaners located close to TC®’s North American, European and Asia markets.
“We control manufacturing activity through on-site supervision and by employing quality systems,” he adds. For example, most vendors partnering with TC® are ISO-certified.
“When we select a vendor, we conduct a vendor audit and check their capabilities,” he says. “Then we work with the vendor to produce trial lots. Stability of production is what we’re looking for. We need to be assured that the contract manufacturer understands the intricacies of our product offerings.” As the company develops new technologies and capabilities, he adds, “we will strive to find the best vendors to ensure our quality standards.” Technical Concepts chose to outsource its production and filling processes to draw upon the core competencies and technologies of companies providing state-of-the-art manufacturing and filling functions. “If you take a look at the refill side,” he says, “a lot of capital investment goes into the aerosol fill line“. For example, he adds, once installed, the company is locked into that technology and needs that line running all the time. “If we devise a new, non-aerosol technology the company would need to devise a plan for the non-running line”. In a nutshell, he explains: “outsourcing keeps us flexible and focused on the market.”
In its own facility, TC® does distribution and labeling for customers who require that their own labels be on specific products. “In terms of developing, planning and setting up specifications – we do everything but the physical work,” Bellinger says, “but we still control the quality and performance of the products.” Technical Concepts invests millions of dollars annually in the invention and development of its high-quality hygiene washroom solutions. Technological advances have provided the company with unique opportunities to meet the customized needs of consuming customers. Combined with new developments in cleaning and fragrance formulations, Technical Concepts is constantly re-engineering the way away-from-home washrooms are cleaned and maintained.
The proof is in the testimonials
But don’t listen to Technical Concepts describe the benefits of its touch-free systems. Customer testimonials are proof enough. Lester Santaniello, property manager for Radnor Center Associates explains: “The Radnor Office Center is a high-image complex and its tenants include high-profile financial firms, health insurance, investment and insurance companies, etc. The OneShot® autosoap system has helped improve the image of the washrooms where it has been installed because there have been no problems with dripping or non-working systems. They were easy to install.” Equally as important: “I can foresee a cost savings, as users tend to use the one dose of soap offered instead of pumping the traditional systems three or four times.”
Abbott Laboratories also has lauded the advantages of TC®’s products. Dave Dominguez, operations manager of plant engineering services, says the operation maintains two separate facilities housing in excess of 16,000 people. “Until last year, we were using a different brand of automated flushing system, but were not pleased with the results. We switched to TC®’s AutoFlush® and AutoHygiene™ systems and have found them to be easily maintained and installed.” In addition, he says, “the AutoFlush® and AutoClean® units have solved the issue we had of keeping these high traffic areas sanitary, clean and pleasant at all times.”
Having received these and many other accolades, TC® is positioning itself to advance its technology into other areas – washstations in hospitals and restaurants, for example. “Giving people the ability to efficaciously and easily wash their hands in non washroom environments such as nurses stations, kitchens and food processing areas is our future vision,” Murphy says.
This vision reaches to the heart of the company’s future direction. “ We plan to develop new and unique solutions which promote better hygiene,” Murphy says, “and do it in a way that cost-effectively meets the needs of the customers for enhanced health and wellness, image, cost-in-use and productivity. All of our product development efforts are ultimately driven by the customers who will benefit most from their use”.