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Tool designers work a vision into reality


James G. Martz, director of new product development for Black & Decker Corp., has his own rogues' gallery -- new products introduced by the giant power tool and appliance maker that flopped.

There was the rotary power cutter introduced in 1979 that cut through steel plates as well as carpeting, but couldn't cut consumer resistance. There was the power shoe shiner of the early 1980s that polished off its chances with a then-high price of $29. And then there was the paint sprayer powered by carbon dioxide canisters.

"It wasn't consumer friendly," Mr. Martz said, summing up the reason for many of Black & Decker's marketing failures.

But if these products didn't catch consumers' fancy, the Towson-based company, which spends around $90 million a year on research and development, has had more than its share of smash successes. These include the run-away best selling SnakeLight, introduced last Christmas, the DeWalt brand of professional tools, which made its debut three years ago, and the DustBuster, which has nearly become synonymous with cordless vacuums.

"For such a big company, they've been able to be very innovative," said Michael L. Mead, an analyst for Legg Mason Inc., a Baltimore brokerage firm.

The innovation process starts with people like Mr. Martz, who works with two engineers and a model maker -- along with the support of other departments -- to develop new products for the consumer power tool division.

This team developed the new generation of power tools that Black & Decker is introducing this week to bolster its consumer brands. The new products also include the VersaPak system of interchangeable rechargeable batteries, which Mr. Martz's team has been working on for five years.

Ideas for products come from the outside, employees or even what is called "ideation" firms -- companies that specialize in coming up with new concepts for other companies. "You can go to them with a general idea and say 'we want . . .' and they'll come back with different approaches," Mr. Martz said. "They come with a fresh attitude, a fresh idea of how to go about things."

Once an idea takes shape, it goes through a six-step winnowing process of management and marketing reviews that eliminate about 95 percent of the proposals. Surviving concepts then move into the development process, with more than 150 steps.

"It gets very tedious if you look at that," Mr. Martz said. "But when you're in this, it's second nature," he said. In fact, the organized approach shaves three to six months off the normal development time of 18 to 24 months, he said.

To make prototypes, Mr. Martz uses the company's machine shop at its Towson headquarters complex and a computer system called stereo lithography. The system canproduce a plastic model from a computer drawing in three days compared with four to five months using traditional methods.

What comes out of this process is often not very pretty.

In the case of a new edge sander, the first version looked like it came out of a basement workshop -- sharp edges and wires held together with electrical tape. The second version was a little more refined, with the addition of a rectangular, white metal housing. In the third -- and close to final -- version, the tool acquired a green plastic body and looked nearly ready for the store shelf.

After management and internal focus groups give their approval, the project is taken over by a development team of two engineers and a designer who refine it so it can be manufactured with the right features and the right cost. The marketing departments and industrial design group also gets involved, helping to determine color, shape and the other style features.

"That's what they're paid for. To get something that will be sold, something that you will buy," Mr. Martz said. "We'll get you something that works."

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