As fire raced through the complex of old industrial buildings next to the Tecumseh Street bridge Monday afternoon, neighbors came out to see the spectacle and one obvious question arose: Whats in those buildings?
No one seemed certain. Lots of old stuff stuck in storage, junk, some said. There was an old camper that had been in there for years. One building had construction foam. An old trailer had been sitting in one building for 14 years, one man said.
The next day as people reminisced about the history of the century-old buildings – Wayne Pump was based there once, and they made bombs in one of the buildings during World War II – one name did come up.
A kid named Alex who is an amazing welder had a shop in there. He made turbochargers and manifolds for Hondas, for people who wanted to turn them into race cars. He even had some patents, one man said, but he couldnt remember his last name.
I tracked down Alex. His name is Alex Neumann. Hes 28 years old. When he was a kid his dad bought him a go-kart, and he learned how to tinker.
His senior year at Northrop High School he designed and engineered his own turbocharger.
Later his parents lent him $3,000 and he started a company – one of several – called Neukin Motor Development. For eight years he had been slowly building the business, producing intake manifolds and turbochargers and other engine parts for the custom market in the U.S. and Europe.
He didnt make just those, though. He was tinkering with solar power and had built a solar-powered model airplane that would just fly and fly, he said. He had a company called Slimfan that made engine fans for race cars, too.
Neumann, it turns out, isnt just a welder. Hes an inventor. He gets ideas for products and he makes them. Stuff Im passionate about, he says.
He never studied engineering. You know how the Internet is, he said. You can study lots of different ideas there, he said.
Its a lot of fun, like the American dream, he said. Its how anything is done, with a lot of passion.
And Neumann seems to have plenty of passion. His little shop, with a concrete floor, reinforced concrete roof and metal walls – the kind of place he thought couldnt possibly burn – was full of computers containing all his ideas, pictures, prototypes, computers used for three-dimensional design, computer-run machinery used to make his products.
Then there was what he called proprietary stuff – custom jigs, a couple of customers cars, and his car, a BMW he planned to sell to use for a down payment on a house where he planned to build his own shop.
Youd be surprised the crazy stuff I was working on, Neumann said.
Everything hed designed in the last eight years or so, all the specs, exactly how to make all of his products, were on those computers.
Now its all gone. Everything baked first, he said, and then the concrete roof collapsed. There is nothing but rubble now. Its sort of like having his own library at Alexandria burn.
Its pretty mind-blowing, Neumann said. I went from being able to do anything to not being able to change my oil.
The total loss was probably in the $60,000-to-$70,000 range, none of it insured, but then you cant insure ideas and specs, eight years of intellectual work completely erased.
Its not, Oh, this guys turbo shop is gone. My whole brain just got wiped, all my tools, all my ideas.
It totally disrupts your lifes plan, he said.
But Neumann is dealing with it. Im not in horrible shape. I ran the company for eight years. I know how to deal with stress, including the stress of just having had his first child three weeks ago.
Hes got a regular job, at least, making precision medical devices, and he just got his aerospace certification, which allows him to work on airplanes and even spacecraft. He has a future, just in a different direction.