BUTLER, IND. - Therma-Tru Corp., fresh off a court order barring competitor Peachtree Doors Inc. from violating its patent for composite entry doors, has launched a major effort to develop new plastic parts to replace wood. ``We're looking at how we can get wood out of the product,'' said David Welles Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Therma-Tru.
Company officials revealed the plans during a July 19 press conference in Butler to announce the legal victory. They said a five-person research and development team is working on the project. Replacing structural wood components with plastics is one goal. The company also is beefing up production of its composite doors.
While the R&D project is long-term, Therma-Tru's legal victory - a permanent injunction against Peachtree - will have an immediate impact on the residential door market. Therma-Tru President Stephen Bores said the decision effectively will require other ``look-alike'' fiber-reinforced plastic entry doors to withdraw from the market. Bores said Therma-Tru is examining doors from other manufacturers, although he said: ``Our goal is to resolve it without any additional lawsuits.''
Peachtree said it plans to redesign its FRP door and continue production.
Judge Bernard Friedman of U.S. District Court in Detroit signed the permanent injunction on June 28. Therma-Tru hosted the media at its complex in Butler to announce the ruling. Reporters toured two plants in Butler. One plant makes sheet molding compound and compression molds SMC into door skins on four presses, in addition to metal stamping. The other plant assembles doors.
Beginning Oct. 26, Peachtree must stop making its Newport-brand door, the injunction says.
Bores said Therma-Tru, a privately held door manufacturer with about $150 million in annual sales, has spent more than $1 million in legal fees on the case. Therma-Tru first sued Peachtree in 1989, the same year Peachtree introduced its Newport door.
In 1991, a jury in District Court in Detroit found that the Newport infringed on the patent for Therma-Tru's Fiber-Classic door. But the judge set aside that verdict and ruled against Therma-Tru. Both companies appealed.
This year, on Jan. 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington upheld the jury's ruling that Peachtree infringed on the Therma-Tru patent. The case then returned to Detroit, where the judge issued the injunction.
Therma-Tru Corp. compression molds the outer skin of its Fiber-Classic door from SMC. The SMC skin comes out of the mold with a woodgrain, which is stainable. Polyurethane foam fills the inside.
Maumee, Ohio-based Therma-Tru claims to have invented the FRP composite door. Welles said the company first tried to make an FRP door in the mid-1970s, but failed. Therma-Tru tried again in 1983, and patented the door in 1985, creating a whole new market category, he said.
The court ruling appears to give broad authority to Therma-Tru's 1985 U.S. patent number 4,550,540, for a ``compression molded door assembly.'' The patent covers an SMC-skin door with a simulated wood grain.
The injunction means Peach-tree ``cannot make a Newport or Newport-like door,'' Bores said.
A day earlier, Peachtree issued a statement asserting the court found patent infringements by ``some minor design elements'' of the Newport. ``Peach-tree will market a redesigned fiberglass door, and Peachtree dealers will experience no interruption in product delivery,'' the statement said.
The two firms next will battle over monetary damages, which Therma-Tru is compiling now.
Meanwhile, Therma-Tru is spending $7 million to boost capacity to prevent a shortage of FRP doors. Automating the loading and unloading of SMC door skins could double production in Butler and a second molding facility, in Van Buren, Ark., Bores said.