Many people think home improvement really is as simple as it appears on the latest HGTV design show. But behind the scenes, engineers have an enormous impact, designing many of today's most popular tools, the tools that make the Carter Oosterhouses and Candice Olsons of the world look so good at the end of the show. In short, there is more to it than the average viewer thinks.
First, it starts with an idea. Joseph Kelleher, a mechanical engineer for Black and Decker, says who comes up with the idea and where it leads to can vary. "There are several ways which ideas for new products are developed," Kelleher says. "Some of the ideas for consumer products come from outside inventers. There is a whole process for submitting ideas into our system. Several are developed in-house through dedicated resources and many more are simply solutions brought about by the normal development processes. Regardless of the way an individual idea is brought about or developed, the most successful concepts typically resolve a user frustration or solve an engineering challenge in an elegant and novel way."
But even when the process is a success, it can often have its challenges. "The 'best' product that I have been involved with was a quick release hole saw mandrel," Kelleher says. "I had only been out of school for a few months and I was given the opportunity to innovate and work with some extremely talented and creative people. I was also able to put in my first patent discloser. In the end, the design that I developed was overpriced so I went back to the drawing board and developed a solution which resolved all the user frustrations and only added a couple small parts to the existing design. When both concepts were compared side-by-side, my less expensive design researched better with the end user than my more expensive design. It wasn't until several years later that I finally saw the final product sitting on a shelf."
The Rockler JIG IT® Drill Guide can be used with a drill press or a hand drill to ensure perfectly aligned holes.
Image source: Rockler.com
And, of course the physical well-being of the customer is always at the forefront of the process. "Safety is always addressed early and often," Kelleher says. "There is never a tradeoff. The products must always be safe first, then we worry about all other metrics."
But not all home improvement companies are dealing in products that require strong attention to safety. Take Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, Medina, MN. Rockler purposely tries to stay away from items that could potentially be dangerous, but there are still many items to help the home that are simple to create.
Dan Banasik, industrial designer for Rockler, gives an example. "It's a system for building your own custom shutters," he says. "We identified that it had been extremely difficult to build your own versus custom order. We focused on a system to build 1 ¼, 2 ½, and 3 ½-inch shutters in a couple different variations to hit the majority of what's ordered. It was a huge cost savings." And they actually used an older creation from the company to anchor this one. "We tapped into jigs of ours of the past that use a self-centering kit," Bansik recalls. "Rockler had a self-drilling jig to put holes in book cases for shelving. We used the mechanics of that and built the shutter system; a step-and-repeat process, something you can set up on a drill press but it's foolproof."
It's also a reminder that you have to consider all possible products that can be useful. The industry runs the gamut from high-end drills to simple drill bits. Says Steve Krohmer, vice president of product development for Rockler: "Take something ultra-functional, strip it to its bare essence and see if it will do well without much expense. That's a philosophy that works in this industry."
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
Safety is always addressed early and often. There is never a tradeoff. The products must always be safe first then we worry about all other metrics.
Joseph Kelleher, mechanical engineer, Black and Decker
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