Back to the Drawing Board ... Again

Traditionally, the prototyping phase of tool development–where engineers create an actual, physical tool for testing and evaluation–was the most time-consuming. As recent as a decade ago, tool companies still developed blueprint schematics on drafting tables, provided those specs to a team of model makers and metal die-casters, and hopefully got a usable prototype back in half a year.

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Daily Gist

Who: Daily Gist, industrial design manager, Irwin
Beginnings: Childhood disassembly/reassembly of clocks; industrial design degree, Auburn University
Creative Fuel: Idea wall; Irwin vs. Ryobi go-cart races
Dream Invention: Insulin therapy implant for diabetics

Design and modeling technology from CAD software to 3-D printers and CNC routers have drastically cut that window. "Years ago between designing and cutting it, we might be developing a prototype for six months," says Bostitch director of product development Gary Blanchette. "Here in four weeks we can spit out a full-blown prototype. The level of capability lets me refine and get product to the market faster. Before you might only prototype one or two concepts, but now we can prototype five or six concepts and configurations and really dial things in."

Using a vast array of different brands of CAD programs (Irwin alone uses three separate programs), tool designers can sit down at the computer and create a 3-D architectural blueprint file of a tool in anywhere from a few hours to a few days to a few weeks depending on the tool's complexity. Once completed, that file can be downloaded into model-making hardware–including CNC routers, SLS and SLA machines, and 3-D printers–and a prototype can be had virtually overnight.

3-D printers, in particular, have been instrumental to the development of what engineers call "rapid prototyping." Evolved way beyond their dot matrix and ink-jet forbears, 3-D printers produce layer after layer of either resins or plastics to create actual components from a CAD file. Those components can then be assembled into a display prototype or used as molds to quickly develop metal parts for a jobsite-worthy tool. SLS machines use a similar layering process, firing a laser at fine powders to fuse those powder grains into a solid material, while SLA machines uses photosensitive liquid plastic that hardens into solid forms predetermined by a CAD file when exposed to bright light.

Despite all the tech advances, the actual post-prototyping and refinement processes remain virtually unchanged: prototype, test, improve; prototype, test, improve. "We call it that, too–improvement. We don't even use the word 'change,'" says Brazell. "You would not make a change unless it was an improvement or refinement. The word improvement implies that it is getting better, it is worth the effort, let's move forward."

Moving forward means getting working prototypes back out to the jobsite for rigorous contractor testing. While certain stress and breakage evaluation can now be completed using computers, tool inventors unanimously agree that rushing a product onto the shelves can have disastrous consequences. "I designed the TD432 pneumatic nailer and our group had thought it was a great, innovative tool," says Takezaki. "Ultimately the model could not catch on at all in the market because some practice was required to make good use of its application. A new model was invented soon after, and I had a great experience by this project and learned how important field-testing is."

If anything, final contractor testing is where tool companies–despite an urge to get their nearly complete concepts to market–are still forced to take it slow and easy. "Probably six months out we'll build 100 tools and put those in the field," explains Blanchette, who adds that Bostitch employs a group of people whose entire job is to place tools in the field and follow up with end users. "Another three months out we'll give out about 100 more production-quality tools where we are looking for no complaints, no major issues, and I don't see us crunching that time down too much."

Total investment in both time and money for a new tool to go from idea to jobsite regular varies widely. "You really cannot put a time line on invention," says Potter. "It can be as quick as six to nine months; it can take as long as five years. Costs can run from zero to the millions." Blanchette says Bostitch can usually invent, develop, and launch a new tool for around $400,000, while Takezaki says it takes Max about a million. At Stanley, Howard has seen development time drop from three years down to about one. "We're all trying to push the envelope but not step over the edge," he says. "If you come out with something that is untested or something too radical, the contractor isn't going to like it." Bender says that the typical development time line for a tool at Bosch from inception at one of the company's ideation sessions until it is in the contractor's hand ranges from 18 months to three years.