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Chuck Buchanan—The engineer's engineer

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By Mark Martel

Another time Chuck drove up in a Corvette with a sharply slanted windshield, trying out a wiperless wiper. Special Dow Corning glass plus experimental coatings seemed to obviate the need for wipers. The prototype worked well…except at slow speeds near home, where most driving takes place. Another concept used cameras to detect rain droplets to trigger the wipers automatically. Any idea was fair game.

Chuck also co-created a combined radio and CB antenna, contributed to idea for an antenna embedded in the window, and developed "brake-by-wire" systems.

Some of Chuck’s best-known patents include dancing wipers, wipers auto-refilling via rainwater, retractable antennae, an acceleration reaction clutch with override capability and numerous sliding door systems.

For ITT the Buchanans took many trips to Germany, extending the circle of friends.

The French firm Valeo, Inc. bought the ITT unit in 1998 and made Chuck Senior Valeo Expert in Wipers. He stayed until his retirement in 2004. Valeo honored him several times for his prolific and profitable inventions.

Gordon Lewis recalls, “He was clearly a team player. At Valeo there were three parallel engineering groups, in Paris, Stuttgart and Michigan. They were forced to work in three geographic areas, with three languages and three cultures. That was a challenge to deal with but Chuck just thrived on that. Diane was a help since she taught French.”

For Valeo Chuck began commuting, spending four weekdays in Detroit and driving back to Dayton for weekends. While in Detroit he came across I-TRIZ, a problem-solving system for invention used by companies like GM, Ford and IBM. I-TRIZ sought to reduce the time needed to invent and to bring to market better products. Chuck would soon test both claims at Valeo.

Chuck initially paid for his own I-TRIZ training from partners Boris Zlotin and Zion Bar-El. “Chuck would work from 8-5 or 6 and then come over from about 8 and stay until 11 or 12 learning about I-TRIZ,” says Boris. He came weekly, studied, worked, drank beer at their house.

Boris was very surprised Chuck held so many patents, and felt that his inventions were very beautiful. He seldom saw an inventive type that was also open to structured methodical systems like I-TRIZ.

“In all 19 years in our business since November 1992, we never had a guy like Chuck,” Zion notes. “Chuck was a very strongly analytical person and also had a very good imagination.” The combination was unusual—one side might produce a good scientist, the other might create an artist, but together you got an inventor.

Chuck promoted I-TRIZ so well that the Paris headquarters invited the consultants to help solve a major problem. In 2001-02, as Valeo neared a major launch involving 68 patents they discovered a Japanese company held 4 patents that could cause infringement problems. With little time to fix the problem Valeo enlisted I-TRIZ to help leapfrog the competitor. Chuck worked on the U.S. front of the international effort.

One reason Chuck never pursued a patent for his elevator idea was that he recognized inventing on your own could be tougher. Someone had to source it, protect it, and promote, as he learned from fellow Dayton inventor John Janning. Working for a company gave Chuck regular access to patent advice and a new friend.

For patent attorney Lewis, Chuck was a bridge buddy, cigar buddy and a very accomplished cook. Lewis has dealt with many inventors over 35 years. Chuck was “one of the most unique and creative individuals I was ever involved with. It’s overused, but he really was able to think outside of the box.

“Most engineers when given a project will do it by what already exists, they’ll do it much the same way out of their inertia. It’s a rare engineer or scientist who can set aside conventional technology or wisdom. Chuck was able to do that. He saw the big picture. I saw many inventors who would focus on one area, but Chuck was always looking for what was new.

“There was a bit of an entrepreneur in him. He could get very frustrated when his current employer wouldn’t take advantage of some new technology. That’s probably why TRIZ was so appealing to him.”

Most people interviewed for this article gave the tally of patents for Chuck Buchanan at around 68. Gordon Lewis searched the QPAT commercial database in March 2011 and found nearly double the number—122 worldwide patents under Chuck’s name or reassigned to his employers. Some patents could still be pending.

In his last year with Valeo Chuck was given a choice of what to work on. He focused on how to develop the next generation of solutions through directed evolution.

Like many, the I-TRIZ partners felt Chuck was a close friend. They would work and party together, staying at each others’ homes when in Dayton or Detroit.

And because so many people felt the same way about Chuck, Zion notes that he had a very beautiful retirement party.

Chuck continued consulting in his field. He remained a voracious reader on many subjects, and an accomplished cook who liked to surprise guests with flames to the ceiling for Bananas Foster.

Chuck Buchanan’s full resume includes his role as National Vice President of the U.S. Jaycees, service as Dayton Section President of Society of Automotive Engineers in 1996-97, his Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement for Dayton by the Engineering and Science Foundation and Affiliate Society Council of Dayton in 1998, and his service to Normandy United Methodist Church.

Chuck was also president of the Engineers Club of Dayton during the turbulent 2001-2002 term. He helped keep the club private after a faction sought to make the club the centerpiece of the public Riverscape MetroPark. He and other club members helped put the club back on a solvent, private footing. Long time club member John Bosch said Buchanan “showed a lot of leadership in some of the toughest times the Engineers Club went through.” Another peer, Ben Graham, called Chuck “an engineer’s engineer.” Chuck continued to serve the club until his passing.

Chuck spent his free time sailing, mastering the skills of pilot and captain and teaching others to work the charts. Besides the Great Lakes, Chuck and wife Diane sailed the Caribbean and even the Adriatic with German co-worker friends. The Buchanans traveled widely through much of Europe, South Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, New Zealand, and Australia.

Diane thinks he would want to be remembered as someone who loved kids. Chuck did experiments with his kids and four grandkids, teaching about water vortexes, rotating walls, building and flying kites, making robots and more. He explained things in a way kids could get. Daughter Christine would complain he would go back to the beginning of time; it took longer but she learned it.

When Chuck learned the daughter of the receptionist at the Engineers Club was doing poorly at math, he took them to lunch and spent the whole time telling the girl how math could be fun. He didn’t tolerate fools but had the patience to teach the willing, according to Diane.

In 2005 Chuck and Ideation started an I-TRIZ franchise in Dayton, though not much came from it. Chuck was a great innovator if not a great salesman, though he did earn the highest certification given.

Buchanan passed away September 2, 2009 at age 67, after 44 years of marriage. His ashes were spread from a sailboat.

Chuck made significant contributions to the auto industry. Much of what he worked on is invisible to the public, known only to those on the inside. Yet those contributions are right at our fingertips anytime we turn on the wipers, open the door or power down the windows. Thanks again, Chuck.

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