Brian Kramer
Photo: Greg Glass Brian Kramer

Like most tool inventors and designers, Senco's Brian Kramer was born for the job. A self-described engineer from 3 years old, Kramer would attempt to recreate anything he could see out of Legos and spent afternoons garbage-picking small electronics out of neighborhood trash cans for disassembly, parts inventory, and an attempted reassembly, usually into some type of perceived improvement on the original.

"One day the guy across the street was throwing out a huge console color TV, and I was right over there with my dad's screwdrivers and had the back off," Kramer says of a particular pay-dirt moment. "Then my neighbor came out of his house shaking his head yelling, 'What are you doing in there?' My reply: 'I'm looking for anything I can find to help me build a go-cart.'" Flash forward to present day, and Kramer is heading up a 10-person team in the midst of a clean-sheet redesign of Senco's signature line of framing nailers.

Whether they're working with hand tools, power tools, or pneumatics, many tool company product developers share a similar pedigree to Kramer. Almost universally they'll tell you they've been absorbed in tools, machinery, and industrial design since childhood–some of them even dream in tools. They're Popular Mechanics–types and toolhounds all the way, content only when they've simultaneously got something on the drawing board and something in their hands. They love to take things apart and equally relish putting things together and making the impossible possible. If there's a need for a new tool out there, they are racing to get their version onto the shelves and onto jobsites across America.

Who: Brian Kramer, project leader and engineer, Senco
Beginnings: Legos; Go-carts; Engineering degree, University of Cincinnati
Creative Fuel: Senco Idea Workshop

John Howard
John Howard

Best Inventions Ever: Light bulb; Grass string trimmer

In the past, that process meant long hours in labs, drawing schematics, going through painfully long prototype-creation sessions, and testing products for stress and breakage before giving a tool to a focus group in a boardroom for approval. Advances in technology, however, particularly in CAD software and rapid prototype creation hardware, have sped up the time line from years to months, and the growing reliance on real-life contractor testing and input is bringing the best ideas for new tools in from a new industry wellspring: you.

Tools on Film

And forget the boardroom. While some tool companies still have focus groups visit headquarters from time to time, the push these days is to get out to the jobsite and observe contractors using tools in their natural–and not so natural–environments and applications.

"We spend a lot of time out at jobsites working side by side with contractors to understand their applications and ultimately how can we make their jobs at work more productive," says DeWalt group product manager for batteries and chargers Christine Potter, who was a major player in the company's recent development of 36-volt lithium-ion tools with Nano Technology and now acts as a leader and liaison between marketing and engineering. "The time that we spend with our customer and working alongside our contractor–we get a lot more information as opposed to focus groups. It is more time-consuming, but you get better information; you get that one-on-one interaction."

Who: John Howard, senior industrial design manager, Stanley Works
Beginnings: Childhood disassembly/reassembly of outboard motors; owned his own industrial design consultancy for 20 years
First Project: FatMax measuring tape