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.

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Brian Kramer

Credit: Photo: Greg Glass

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

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John Howard

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
Best Invention Ever: Personal computer

To get the 411 that leads to great new inventions and innovations, toolmakers engage in some unique lines of questioning and observation. "The best questions we can ask a contractor are 'What keeps you up at night?' and 'What do you worry about?'" says Hilti director of power tools David Schimmel. "We've got to figure out what the key applications are and what the trades actually spend their day doing."

According to Stanley Works senior industrial design manager John Howard, that company has formalized its jobsite investigation unit to the point where for several years they have even had a name for it: "The Discovery Team."

For several tool companies, the trick for jobsite research is to figure out application and product problems that end users don't even realize they put up with every day. "You can only get so much from talking to customers," explains Milwaukee Electric Tool's concept development team director Jon Zick, who helped to successfully develop Milwaukee's first jobsite radio three years ago. "The problems that they have, they are so used to dealing with them that they do not even know they are problems. So a lot of times they don't even know what they are doing to get their job done. The biggest thing is to sit back and observe the customer and watch how they are using the tool." A good example of that, Zick says, would be the use of lights on tools, which came about after watching users try to hold a flashlight and a tool at the same time.

In fact, visual observation of contractors in the field is so paramount to new tool designers that many are relying on video ethnography (VE) to capture the tool, the user, and the environmental data in digital action. "VE is literally videotaping end users doing their task," explains Ken Brazell, vice president of industrial design and concept development at TTI, parent company of Ryobi, Milwaukee, and Ridgid. "It's a way to discover the true application of a tool, because what we say is not always what we do. People modify tools and processes in an effort to more closely meet their needs. Those modifications we look at as opportunities."

At Makita USA, all tool developments, from brand-new products to changes to existing lines, are handled by Makita Japan's central R&D facility, located 17 time zones away in Anjo, Japan. That's a distinct disadvantage when it comes to bringing new tools to market, says Makita USA vice president of product development Hiroshi Tsujimura. When Tsujimura's team has an idea for a new tool or tool development, they send an RFD (request for development) all the way to Anjo. RFDs range anywhere from one to six pages long, containing schematics, research on competitive products, and estimated market size. To help get more Makita USA ideas in the development hopper, Tsujimura hopes to begin including VE clips with all of his RFDs.

"There are 300 people in the R&D facility in Anjo," explains Tsujimura. "Industrial designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, the testing division–it's all there. They work on new tools for Makita Japan, Makita USA, Makita Europe, Makita Asia, so they have to decide which tools have priority." Sometimes a tool is suitable for all markets, sometimes it is not, Tsujimura says. "It can be hard for us to convey to engineers in Japan 7,000 miles away what is needed in the U.S. market in terms of tool features and applications. Using video can overcome that so they do not have to come back to us. Everything will be in one package. This is our request. Do it."