COSTA MESA — Flashlights have taken on many new shapes, sizes and colors over the years, but their basic technology hasn't changed much since they were invented a century ago. That's why Lowell Way thinks he has a winner.
Way is president of Diamond Light Industries Inc., a Costa Mesa company that turned a 12-year-old patent for a high-beam lens into a new battery-powered flashlight that's significantly brighter than others. Independent lab tests sponsored by Diamond Light show its krypton-bulb flashlights are 20% to 30% brighter than comparable models.
"There's nothing else like it," Way says, holding up one of the slim, square lanterns, which are about six inches long and wide and have a rotating handle.
Some retailers say Diamond Light's launch in January got off to a quick start, boosted by a rush for flashlight purchases after the Northridge earthquake.
Steve DeNault, whose family owns five True Value hardware stores in Orange County, placed his order in mid-January after testing Diamond Light along with other brands in a dark attic at his store in Laguna Niguel. Since then, DeNault says he's sold about 300 Diamond Lights at $21.99 each--more units than any other brand. "It's kind of the next flashlight to come," he says.
Way, 46, raised almost $2 million to get the flashlight to the market, much of it from Cimco Inc., a Costa Mesa plastics manufacturer that's making the products for Diamond Light. Cimco says its current plan is to produce 400,000 units in its first year. Way, however, won't say how many flashlights his company has sold to date.
Diamond Light flashlights are currently sold in about 1,000 hardware and general retail outlets nationwide, including Meijer Inc.'s chain of 116 mass-merchandise stores in the Midwest. And in the fall, Way says, the company will begin offering two smaller and cheaper versions of its current model.
Way says he hopes to secure much more shelf space, especially at warehouse-style retailers like Irvine's HomeBase chain, where Diamond Light is now being tested. But even then, it won't be easy going up against established rivals like Rayovac, Eveready, Garrity and Mag Instruments, which dominate the $340-million-a-year domestic flashlight industry.
Kevin Kouba, brand manager for Rayovac Corp. in Madison, Wis., which has been making flashlights since 1906, says he hasn't seen the Diamond Light product. But he says that one of Rayovac's latest models is a square, compact lantern that uses a krypton bulb, which is much brighter than an ordinary bulb. And Rayovac's lantern retails for about $10. "It's difficult for a new entrant to break in because of the competitive nature of the industry," Kouba says.
Paul Garrity, founder and chairman of Garrity Industries in Madison, Conn., has not seen Diamond Light's flashlight either. But he says Diamond Light "is on the right track if it has something new and different. There aren't many new things in the flashlight industry."
The last time anyone shook up the flashlight industry was in the early 1980s when Ontario-based Mag Instruments came out with its pocket-sized, metal flashlights. Mag's flashlights have since become a favorite with police officers and mechanics, and the company has carved out a whole new category of premium flashlights.
Now Diamond Light hopes to do the same with its new technology. "A flashlight is a toy," Way says, adding that people will be drawn by its novelty.
Way, who has an master's degree in business administration from USC, spent 10 years running his own home-improvement products import and distribution company in Laguna Hills before he sold it and founded Diamond Light in the fall of 1992. By then, the patent for Diamond Light's flashlight--which has to do with diamond-shaped ridges on its lens that enable more light to be captured than ordinary parabolic lens--was already 10 years old.
Experts say 99% of all inventions never make it to the market, and this one might not have made it either had it not been for a chance meeting in mid-1992 between Way and physicist David Pelka, one of the inventors of the lens technology who made the discovery while doing research on solar energy at Cal State Long Beach.
Pelka had previously developed a prototype of the flashlight, and Way took it home with him, testing it outside on a summer's moonless night and in his garage at his Laguna Niguel home. "I knew they were on to something," Way says.
Before committing, Way flew to Chicago that summer to a hardware trade show to see what other flashlight makers were up to. "I went up and down the aisles, and there was nothing new," Way recalls. "I knew we had a clear opening in the marketplace."