Every Idea Counts

Tsujimura's attitude might seem aggressive, but a "just do it" mentality is employed by virtually every company looking to get to market with bleeding-edge tool technology. And while a lot more ideas are coming from the field, industrial designers still rely on traditional brainstorming techniques to make those ideas reality as they begin the development process that takes a tool from concept to contractor.

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Jon Zick

Who: Jon Zick, concept development team director, Milwaukee Electric Tool
Beginnings: Electrician's helper
Favorite Tool: Sawzall
Best Invention Ever: Light bulb

"We don't even call it brainstorming anymore," says Irwin's industrial design manager Daily Gist. "We call it brain farming." With a specific concept in mind gathered from field research, Irwin's team attacks in roundtable fashion, examining tools and even products from other industries hands-on to generate creative solutions to a jobsite conundrum. The company has an "idea wall"–10 feet wide with shelves floor to ceiling–that hold Irwin tools, competitors' tools, everyday objects, and not-so-everyday objects that are rotated with regularity to give designers a fresh take on conceptualization. Something as simple as a shirt button, Gist says, can unlock a new way of thinking about the application of a tool concept.

Bosch's cordless group product manager Edwin Bender agrees that everyday objects can unlock innovations for new tool concepts. "When we were developing the I-Driver, I just took a paper towel roll into our ideation brainstorming meeting with a couple of pictures pasted on the ends to give an idea of what the tool would look like and feel like," Bender says. "Idea generators and even prototypes don't have to be pretty, they just have to use and encourage the use of the imagination."

At Senco, Kramer regularly barks at his team to get off the computer and get into the company's workshop, which includes workbenches and a host of tools and raw materials for creating objects out of wood, metal, and plastic, all in an effort to generate new ideas. "You can go out there and see a guy on a friction cutting saw throwing a 3-foot shower of sparks," Kramer says of keeping his team in the element. "You've got your safety glasses on, everyone is talking, someone has a Dremel saw going, someone is hammering; we're all working. That is where we fuel our creativity."

Zick also likes to keep his hands busy and his brain engaged. His desk at Milwaukee is littered with industrial and consumer ephemera–everything from socket wrenches to batteries and battery chargers to Play-Doh and stress balls, koozies, and a perpetual motion mobile. "Some people are good with a blank piece of paper and they can just come up with mechanisms," Zick says. "I like to look at other industries and other things around me to trigger thoughts on how I can relate that to the tool industry. Every person has their own niche of how they think of things."

Whether new tool concepts are born from brain farming, throwing sparks in the shop, or–in the case of Mick Takezaki, project product manager for Max's Pneumatic Tool Division–fly fishing, eventually the design team comes back to the drawing board with anywhere from 20 to 100 different approaches for solving issues revealed in their jobsite contractor research. The review of those approaches, Takezaki says, is the final, critical step before a tool team moves to the prototyping process.

Deciding on preliminary designs, in fact, borders on secrecy for most companies. "We keep all of the ideas we are working on documented at every step," explains DeWalt's Potter. You don't necessarily need a retina scan to review tool documentation, but you do need to obtain certain security clearances to access that information on the DeWalt computer server.

It's not just because of the possibility of industrial espionage that leads development teams to keep things under wraps, either. Sometimes the inability of fellow employees to conceptualize ideas before they become reality can squash a project. At Senco, Kramer doesn't want anyone throwing rocks at the company's new line of framing nailers until they are well on their way to completion. "We cleared out a storage area and hunkered down behind locked doors as we began selecting designs," Kramer says. "We surround ourselves with whiteboards with all of our ideas and key features and every type of job-site data we had gathered. There aren't any windows and we lock the doors when we leave."

Tool teams will usually hone down all their ideas to one to four possible projects to be considered for advancement to the prototype stage. Rejected ideas are documented and filed away for future reference. "We vote on the ideas, we rank them, and work on the top 20, then the top 10, then the top two," says Gist. "All ideas are documented in their own binder and dated and arranged in specific categories. At any time we can pull out all of the brain farming we have done. The idea is to have the flexibility to come back and say, 'Three years ago we were not ready for this, but maybe now it is time to go with this idea.'"