Local Inventor Bypasses the PhD and Achieves His Dreams

Robert Petit, at his home with his patented Q-tip case, Fall 2013. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petit
Robert Petit, at his home with his patented Q-tip case, Fall 2013. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petit

By Kylie Tun

“What I love the most is when somebody says, ‘Well that can’t be done.’ As soon as somebody says that to me, I’m gonna do it.”

Next time you stop by your local CVS or any drug store, and you stumble upon the travel section either by mistake or to prepare for that vacation coming up, you’ll see next to the 3oz bottles of Pantene, the “3×4” travel container of Q-tips. Robert Petit, 51, is the inventor of the nifty latch case. Currently living in Grafton, and the owner of 12 patents, he has made an impact on all of our lives. His original design for the Q-tip case was influenced by 8mm cassette tapes.

In his personal home office, Petit often sits and works on his next invention. While he may work all day at a business office, he sometimes brings his work home with him. One of his most recent patents is hanging on the wall as a reminder of his accomplishments and what is to come in the future. This patent was for a dual dispensing valve, which is a device that separates two products, and when the product comes out, the two separate entities come together as one.

There are many memory chips and plausible ideas that sit behind his desk. As he sits in his chair, he plays with a rubber band. After a while, he seems to get more comfortable and sits back as he places his folded hands on his lap in front of him. Even the calendar behind him has different mechanical parts and facts for each month. Outside of the office, he’s a senior mechanical engineer at Perimeter Brand Packaging (PBP).

From across his desk Petit says, “What I enjoy doing is developing plastic parts.” Being in the business for over 25 years, he’s at the highest rank possible for him to still be doing what he loves. Gaining all of this knowledge by spending seven years in each level of his field, he has received more information through experience than he could have ever learned with a book.

Petit started as a laborer and worked his way up. At this point in his career, he has gained all of the experience he has needed in order to get where he is. Interestingly enough, Petit has patented several things from bike shocks to automobile fasteners without even getting a college degree.

Petit has patented many inventions and has been presented with many job opportunities based on his experience, but it wasn’t always so easy for him. There were times when Petit couldn’t even get an interview because he didn’t have a college degree. No matter what level he was at in the occupation, laborer or manager, there were certain co-workers of his that underestimated him, and gave him a hard time because he didn’t have a PhD. Somehow the absence of a degree made him inadequate compared to someone with one. There was a co-worker from a previous job who told him, “You are not educated enough to do the job.”

Petit said, “He wasn’t a good manager and the group eventually dismantled because it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.” With Petit’s experience, he doesn’t need to have a PhD to achieve his goals.

Robert Petit, at his home with his patented Q-tip case, Fall 2013. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petit
Robert Petit, at his home with his patented Q-tip case, Fall 2013. Photo courtesy of Maureen Petit
“You look around this world, you look at the richest men in the world- one year of community college: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” Petit said. To get the job done, most people need experience before they need a degree. Although Petit didn’t always have the easiest time in his work places, it was determination that got him to where he is today.

Stephen Bonazoli, a mechanical engineer turned sales executive at Siemens Corporation right here in Worcester, states that, “Holding more than a few patents is unusual even among degreed engineers.” So even if five years from now it is seen as more or less common to need a degree for this particular field, as the future is unpredictable to an extent, Petit clearly shows that he is an anomaly to the working force.

Born in Fitchburg, and raised in Leominster, Petit grew up building forts and other structures with his childhood friend, Don Bourque. “The whole thing about building the fort was making it different, making it unique,” says Petit. “Some things were just these structures in the dirt just so we could drive our race cars all over it,” he adds.

At 19, he got his first job at TRW, or Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, where he was working with his hands on injection molds. Injection molds are small or large inserts that get filled with melted plastic to build a functioning part or parts. Petit worked as a draftsman and drew up designs for the molds themselves to be sent to the toolmaker. He designed automotive parts like switch housings and fasteners for cars. He even worked on the design for the Chrysler Pentis Star, which went on the Chrysler Fifth Avenue.

Not without talent and intelligence, Petit didn’t finish school for a unique reason. Though he did try attending Worcester Industrial Technical School for one year, and Lowell University for a semester, he just didn’t quite find his niche there. “I was bored with school. I wanted to make money and to start my career,” Petit says. Petit noted how there were things, “that you couldn’t learn from school.” Petit no doubt had incredible smarts. He was tired of spending his time acing classes. So he started working at TRW. His wife, Maureen Petit, says, “I’m very proud of him…with what he learned from other people, and those he worked under. It’s in his head, he’s mechanically inclined, and everything just makes sense.”

While working at one of the many companies he gained experience from, he was struggling to open an 8mm cassette tape that had information from a hard drive on it. After he got it open, the contents flew off the balcony of his office and down the stairs! While comical and also frustrating, this inspired him to create an easy open, easy closing product that would not only keep the tape safe and secure, but was innovative and easy to use. It had just made sense to him to fix it and make a better functioning part.

When the sales for cassettes themselves were dropping, his boss’ wife had the strangest idea for putting Q-tips in them as a travel-sized container. Though the events were unfavorable to him at the time, it started the idea that over the years, turned into the Q-Tip case we all know and love today.

Mr. Petit holds great respect and passion for his wife and three kids, but ironically he does not find inspiration for his work through his family. However, the many trophies and awards that his children have received over the years sit in a wooden case within the office to keep his family close to him and his work. His desk now faces the case so he may glance up to see his other accomplishments. If it’s not trying to make his everyday life easier and better, he’s always got a reason for doing what he does best. Petit says, “What I love the most is when somebody says, ‘Well that can’t be done.’ As soon as somebody says that to me, I’m gonna do it.”

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