Motorhomes in 2007 have every amenity imaginable: marble countertops, walnut cabinetry, high-definition, flat-screen TVs, global positioning systems, washers and dryers, spa-style bathtubs, heated, vibrating seats – even a rooftop deck.
What some of them are missing, frankly, is room to put your pants on, says Larry Budica, vice president of engineering for National RV Inc. in Perris, Calif.
According to a report in the Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif., that thought, and a desire to give their coaches a homier feel, led to a design innovation the company plans to include in nearly 20% of its 2007 products.
Slide+1, as it is called, is a wall that slides out electronically from the side of the motorhome, then slides out again, in telescoping fashion.
Last fall, National RV filed its design with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, marking the third time the 43-year-old company has filed for a patent.
Over the next two years, company President Len Southwick hopes his research and development team will be able to file for other patents as well.
“There is a lot of product out there so you have to differentiate yourself with innovation,” he said. “It is nice to put our name on something and keep it separate.”
National RV unveiled the slide+1 prototype in November at the annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., the industry’s biggest event.
It got a lot of attention, said Budica, who at one point had to chase out designers from another company who were trying to figure out how it worked.
When the feature hits the market for the first time in February, it will be fair game, however, for competitors who may try to create their own versions.
“But they will have to engineer it. That is the tough part,” Southwick said. The design process alone took about three months at National RV.
Budica, who worked for Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. before joining National RV, said patents typically take 12 months to 18 months before they are approved.
While the recreational vehicle industry has been around since the 1940s, RVs have constantly changed as technology evolved and consumer demands moved from the simple desire to roam the country to the expectation of doing it in style.
“Historically, the RV industry did not consider patents very important,” said Thabita Philip-Guide, assistant general counsel for Fleetwood.
But as key innovations were patented, it was clear they gave manufacturers “important protection and a competitive advantage,” she said in an e-mail.
Fleetwood employs more than 200 people in its engineering and development department and files for about three RV-related patents every year, she said. (National RV, a much smaller company, has about 65 people, Southwick said.)
Last year, Fleetwood was awarded a patent for the design of a storage area in its folding camping trailers that is accessible when the trailer is folded. It also received protection on the spring arrangement for ramp doors on some of its travel trailers.
The company has patents pending on improvements to its full-wall motorhome slide-outs and on a flushable toilet system for its folding trailers, Philip-Guide said.
One of Fleetwood’s most noteworthy patents is for the joists on its Bounder motorhome, which revolutionized the industry in the 1980s. The joists elevated the living quarters to the same level of the cab, allowing for more storage.
“The basic rules that apply to patents in any industry apply to the RV industry as well,” said Gerard Gallagher, a patent attorney with Baker & Daniels in Indiana.
The first person to invent something new will have an easier time receiving a patent while each incremental change to the idea will face tougher scrutiny, Gallagher said.
“But there is a misconception that something has to be completely revolutionary,” Gallagher said. “It just has be different than something that’s been done before.”
And in such a competitive industry, companies protect their patents carefully.
In 2001, for instance, Perris-based Weekend Warrior sued Thor Industries Inc., claiming some of its subsidiaries were infringing on a design of a bed that slides down from the ceiling in the back of its specialized trailers, known as toy haulers.
Ohio-based Thor, which operates Thor California in Moreno Valley, is the nation’s largest RV maker. The case is scheduled to go to trial this summer in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, according to an attorney for Weekend Warrior.