When Bruce Bocking told his colleagues at the Southern California Gas Co. about his idea for a tool that could save time and money in installing gas lines, they were skeptical.
"Us old-timers thought, 'Bruce doesn't know what he's talking about,' " said Glen Van Gorden, planning supervisor for the utility's San Gabriel Valley division office in El Monte. "His tool was too simplistic to work."
But with the help of Van Gorden and six other members of a "quality circle," a group of employees who get together to discuss work-related problems, a prototype was made, tested and modified. It received a patent this summer.
"It worked perfect," Van Gorden said. "It was tested 10 times, and it was a success 10 times."
The "Bocking tool" resembles a large drill bit. It is used to retrieve broken pipe when gas mains are installed or replaced.
Bocking, a leakage survey specialist, said that a steel pipe with a drilling mechanism on one end and a bit on the other is used to tunnel underground. The pipe, called bore pipe, sometimes breaks under stress, leaving pieces lodged underground. "I thought to myself, 'We need a tool to retrieve broken bore pipe,' " Bocking said, "and I visualized this tool."
With his invention, Bocking said, a work crew can extract the section of pipe connected to the drilling mechanism, attach the Bocking tool to the end and drive the pipe back into the ground, where it connects with the section of broken pipe. The crew can either continue tunneling or pull the broken pipe out and make repairs.
Without the tool, workers have to determine the location of the break and dig a hole large enough for a welder, who climbs down and repairs the bore pipe, Bocking said.
In hard soil, gas company officials said, bore pipes break in 10% of digging operations.
"Everybody thought my idea was kind of loony at first," Bocking said. "It was too easy. There were no moving parts; it was not high-tech."
Frank Ayala, San Gabriel Valley division manager, said the tool is "resulting in considerable savings in work hours."
Van Gorden said interest in the tool within the company is still low because of skepticism about its effectiveness. Although the utility holds a shop patent, which allows it to make as many copies as it needs for its own use, only three Bocking tools are being used in the San Gabriel Valley division.
"No one believes in the tool until they see it work," he said.
The tool has been used 12 times in the field and "has worked perfectly every time," Van Gorden said.
After a two-year study, the utility found that the tool cut the repair time for a broken pipe from an average of 17 man-hours to 3 1/2. Bocking said it could save the gas company more than $5 million a year.
"Any savings we make get passed on to the customer," Van Gorden said.
Bocking came up with his idea in 1984, when he was a member of one of the utility's 70 quality circles, a management technique adopted from Japanese businesses, said Claude Delgado, district manager at the Los Angeles-based gas company.
The group, which called itself the "Gas House Gang," included Bocking, Van Gorden, Ayala, Benny Rodriguez, Joe Cervantes, Bruce La Sota, Dave Marshall and Doug Green.
It split up at the end of 1986, when the members were transferred to different divisions of the gas company, said Cervantes, a field planner. But they got together again in July to celebrate when the patent was approved.
The eight men share the patent, which is the fourth awarded to the utility since it started its quality-circle program five years ago.
Although they can expect to make a healthy profit on the sale of tool rights to other utilities, they do not seem interested in monetary gain.
"The gas company pays us well," Rodriguez said as his colleagues laughed. "We don't think too much about the money."