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Frank Gray

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Alex Neumann lost inventory from his small business, as well as computers containing his ideas and inventions, in last week’s fire.

Fire destroys years of work for inventor

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: What’s 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 couldn’t remember his last name.

I tracked down Alex. His name is Alex Neumann. He’s 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 didn’t 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, isn’t just a welder. He’s an inventor. He gets ideas for products and he makes them. “Stuff I’m 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.

“It’s a lot of fun, like the American dream,” he said. “It’s 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 couldn’t 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.

“You’d be surprised the crazy stuff I was working on,” Neumann said.

Everything he’d designed in the last eight years or so, all the specs, exactly how to make all of his products, were on those computers.

Now it’s all gone. Everything baked first, he said, and then the concrete roof collapsed. There is nothing but rubble now. It’s sort of like having his own library at Alexandria burn.

“It’s 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 can’t insure ideas and specs, eight years of intellectual work completely erased.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, this guy’s turbo shop is gone.’ My whole brain just got wiped, all my tools, all my ideas.

“It totally disrupts your life’s plan,” he said.

But Neumann is dealing with it. “I’m 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.

He’s 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.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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