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Keith Meany has never subscribed to the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“I hate doing things in a standardized way just because it’s the way society tells you you have to do it, when there are sometimes other ways to do it quicker and better,” Meany says. “I’ve always looked at problems and tried to find ways to solve them in a more efficient manner.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Meany has created a solution to a problem that has plagued the plumbing industry for years. His new invention, Skubot, is a 3D scanning device that identifies stems and cartridges within seconds, saving precious time and money for wholesalers, contractors and consumers.
Meany has witnessed firsthand the issues associated with identifying obscure stems and cartridges growing up around his parents’ plumbing specialty business, Palmetto Parts Co. of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Customers often needed to replace parts that have no apparent identifying features. When this happened, Meany’s parents either drew upon their expertise to identify the stems and cartridges by sight or use Palmetto’s extensive parts database.
Meany’s light bulb moment occurred when he heard his father discussing the database’s intricacies: Why waste so much time manually plugging in an unknown part’s features (length, width, etc.) and sifting through the results?
“I thought, ‘To heck with this,’” Meany says. “Let’s try and use a high-resolution 3D scanner.”
Meany’s experience in seafloor mapping helped him connect the dots to 3D scanning. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology with an emphasis on ocean cartography from the College of Charleston. In 2012, a few years after graduating, he established his seafloor mapping and employment placement company, Global Coast Survey. Meany reached out to one of his offshore colleagues when he realized he wanted to use some of the same technology to identify unknown plumbing parts based off of their physical shape. That colleague then connected Meany to the individual with whom he would create the first Skubot device.
“We started messing with it, developed the initial algorithm over time, and then it worked,” Meany says. “The rest is history.”
Skubot is now in its third generation and consists of a touchscreen monitor attached to a small tower. When users lay a stem or cartridge down on the device, its sensors go to work and shoot a digital 3D model of the object to a cloud database full of thousands of repair parts, matching stems and cartridges with 98 percent accuracy. Once Skubot recognizes and locates the item, it is displayed on the touchscreen and can offer details such as whether the object is in stock or must be ordered. Related items such as handles and accessories are listed on the page as well. The amount of time this entire process takes? Seven to 20 seconds.
It’s hard to believe that a little over a year ago, this same procedure took Skubot around four minutes to complete. Meany says that even though first-generation Skubots were “slow and clunky,” the effect they had on users was immediate.
“I can’t tell you how many times people were like, ‘Wow this thing is like a magic box! You just put it in there and it tells you what it is,’” he says.
Eleven Ferguson branches
Those users weren’t alone in their admiration. Early on, Skubot grabbed the attention of a division of tech giant HP Inc. and Ferguson Enterprises. Meany has since worked with the companies to deliver Skubot to the general public, and considers both essential “partners” even though Skubot is still 100 percent privately held.
Meany peaked HP’s interest when he bought an unusually large amount of sensors from the company during Skubot’s development. HP decided to enter a technology investigation with Skubot after learning more about it, officially powering the device’s parts identification system.
When Lance Buffington, director of business development for Ferguson Parts and Packaging, learned about Skubot, he felt the technology could enhance the experience of Ferguson’s clientele. Thus, the wholesaler became Skubot’s first customer, and decided to employ the first-generation device at 11 Ferguson branches a little more than one year ago.
“If we can get customers in the door by solving the ‘what is this’ problem, then we have a much better chance at helping them,” Buffington says. “It not only makes the sale for us, but saves customers’ time knowing they can go somewhere and get the answer they need rather than driving from place to place.”
Buffington describes the results of the Skubot pilot program as “phenomenal,” even with the first-generation device’s slower scan time. He says without a device like Skubot it can take associates anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes before they can identify an unmarked part. Skubot can essentially make every associate a product knowledge expert, crucial in an age when the number of experienced plumbing professionals who can quickly identify unmarked parts by sight is slowly dwindling — a trend that the skilled trades shortage only makes worse.
“In repair, I don’t think there’s a lot of focus on the younger folks today coming out and being tradespeople,” Buffington says.
Skubot can also serve as an inventory management tool. It’s one thing not knowing what a part is during a service call, but it’s another thing when a part comes from a vendor and shows up at the counter missing a barcode, leading to that dreaded “price check on Aisle 3” announcement.
“Currently when a barcode tag falls off, is scratched, missing, or tagged wrong ... it is archaic in the sense that it just causes problems and costs time and money,” Meany says.
Additionally, Meany says most wholesalers do not have the resources to identify or source anything other than high volume items, as training associates on lesser known products is usually not cost effective. Skubot solves this problem and can help wholesalers acquire instant sales for items they were not previously able to identify.
“You can’t have everything in every category,” Meany says. “But our goal is to try to provide a mechanism to reach deep into every product category, even if they don’t have it on their shelves.”
The next phase of product categories Meany plans to focus on includes fasteners, fittings and flappers. He has kept a keen eye on other industries that could use Skubot as well, and has already seen interest from those with businesses involving audio, aviation and auto parts.
Although many opportunities still lie on the horizon for Skubot, it’s incredible to look at what Meany and his partners have already accomplished in such a short period of time. With Meany as president, Skubot LLC opened its doors in Charleston, South Carolina, in early 2016. By January 2019, the device won the Consumer Electronics Show HIS Markit Innovation Award in the 3D scanning category. Recently, Skubot’s patent was approved and its intellectual property is now supported by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Plus, Ferguson is so happy with the initial outcomes, the distributor plans to have the latest generation of Skubot in around 150 of its locations by early 2020. It appears Meany is well on the way to meeting his goal of having Skubot at the front lines next to other wholesalers’ counters.
“It’s been such a long road. I think the most gratifying part of the whole process is just seeing the effect it has on the customers and associates who use it,” Meany says. “It’s been incredible seeing how this little idea that we threw together in South Carolina is really going to change the way all hardware stores and wholesalers do business.”