Tracking the landscape of the tool industry is sort of like mapping Europe since the Cold War ended. Tool manufacturers that built their brands on narrowly defined tool categories are crossing the borders and surprising tool users by branching into broader territories every year.
Professional tool users like you make up a huge market for these companies, and after decades of building brand awareness with their core products, manufacturers are diversifying their lines by capitalizing on their brand names. It's a smart way to grow, as long as each new tool line performs up to the quality of the established tools we've come to know and love from these companies. So far, the new tools I've seen live up to that standard.
There are three ways for tool companies to successfully diversify into new categories. First, they can grow through acquisition, buying out an original manufacturing company and re-branding its products. Second, they can license new products from established manufacturers or unknown OEMs and create a line of their own. Or third, they can re-equip their own manufacturing facilities and make the new tools?from start to finish?in-house. This last approach offers the highest level of control and perhaps quality, but also is the most expensive.
Brand-line diversification is one of two factors at play in the growing reliance on and trust in offshore manufacturing. Tool companies can introduce new lines of products more quickly by tying into an offshore manufacturer already producing similar tools than by starting from scratch. The lower cost of labor is the other factor. The trick for these companies is to set up worldwide production without affecting quality; to make tools, parts, and accessories that meet the manufacturers' standards?no matter where they're made.
As Michael Morris' feature story Global Positioning explains, country of origin should not matter anymore in terms of tool quality and performance. Manufacturers involved in global operations, and few are not, are taking tremendous steps to ensure consistent quality from any plant, in any country.
It wasn't that long ago when I would walk into tool displays at major trade shows and talk with brand and product managers about where their tools were actually made. It was usually a short conversation. I'd ask about overseas manufacturing and get something like, "How 'bout them Bears?" in response. But things have changed in just a few years, and most manufacturers have enough confidence in their worldwide production systems that they no longer shy away from, or try to hide, the fact that their tools may come from abroad.
They are confident in their products, but are still leery of your perceptions. It's time to let go of pre-conceived notions about foreign manufacturing. Global economy rhetoric aside, the truth is that it would be hard to draw today's tool industry map, and you'd be hard pressed to identify exactly where your tools are made. I've toured tool factories in the United States that produce complete tools most people think come from Japan. And I've seen shipments of Asian-made parts waiting for assembly here, with brand names on them that would surprise you. But don't forget that your tools also are coming from Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico, and Great Britain. This is a different world. Tools have no borders, and we're better off for it.