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Inventing the Bionic Wrench

Thu, 04/07/2011 - 7:03am
Mike Collins, Author, Saving American Manufacturing

Collins

It all began one day in Dan Brown’s yard as he watched his son try to repair the family lawnmower. Dan watched him attempt to loosen some nuts with a pair of pliers, and he warned him about stripping the nuts. “Once they are rounded off, you’ll have to use channel-lock pliers to force them off, and that’ll add a lot of time to your simple project,” he said.

Brown has been a new product development consultant and a part-time inventor for many years. He has developed products and holds more than 30 U.S. utility patents. After the lawnmower incident, Brown pondered the pliers problem. He then went on to invent an entirely new tool, the Bionic Wrench, a 100 percent U.S. made tool that has found success at many retailers, including every U.S. Sears location. 

Now, I could end the story right here and probably appease the many product designers who read Product Design & Development, because it’s a story that everyone likes to hear: Man has son-inspired idea, invents a new wrench, and makes millions selling it through large retail outlets. The fact is, this is not how it happened, and the process includes many steps after the initial concept. These are the primary steps of Brown’s new product process. 

User Centered Design

Throughout his years of designing and managing new product development, the one fundamental principle Brown learned was the earlier you get the customer involved in the design process, the higher your chances are of selling them. He calls it user center design (UCD).

Brown knew that he needed feedback on his new product ideas, but it had to start with the user. UCD focuses on studying use-actions to identify opportunities for new ideas on how to better solve the problem. 

Brown’s philosophy is that you must develop your product design strategy through continuous interaction with the user, from the beginning through the end of the process.

Articulate the Opportunity

Brown had an idea in his mind, but he had to articulate the opportunity. His idea was to design a new type of wrench that would symmetrically grip on the flats — not on the corners as did traditional wrenches. 

He concluded that if the new wrench concept was feasible, he could base his new product introduction on the new designs novelty.

Design Requirements

Brown believes that design requirements arise out of a user-centered interaction and analysis while dealing with the problem and its related activities. For the Bionic Wrench, he found that users often reached for pliers when a wrench would have been the better choice.

His analysis revealed that if the user didn’t know the fastener size — and didn’t want to spend the time to figure it out — he/she preferred the convenience of an adjustable pliers over the performance of a specific wrench. Thus, his design requirement statement became, “Adjusts like pliers but performs like a wrench.”

From his design requirement statement, he was able to define the design and engineering specifications needed to create a product that competed in existing markets. Specifically, he wanted a product that would accommodate a range of sizes for metric and SAE nuts/bolts and meet ASME specifications and manufacturing compliance.

Once he had the specs down on paper, he began designing his new wrench in CAD and, upon completion, began to build a working prototype.

Competitive Benchmarking

WrenchesBrown’s next step was to find every direct and indirect competitor. He had to check out the strengths and weaknesses of existing wrench designs. Before he spent any money, he wanted to know what other inventors had tried to design — and what was already available in the marketplace. 

More specifically, he wanted to know if his idea had already been patented. The only similar competitor he found was the Robogrip, but a patent search revealed that nothing like his idea had been patented — Brown referred to this as the “design white space.” During this step in the process, Brown created what he calls a “Trade Dress Strategy” to gain a competitive advantage by pursuing trademarks, copyrights, and patents in a combined strategy to not only create the product, but also a complimentary product identity that leads to a brand-based business model.

Validation & Market Research

Validation is an integral part of the process. As a product designer, you must continually loop back to validate your design with users, suppliers, and distribution channels to be sure that you have captured the optimized embodiment of your new designs potential. By including the whole consumption chain in the design process, you create numerous opportunities to innovate and lean out the design as it evolves.

During his research, Brown identified customer choice drivers beyond function, such as purchasing behavior and need. One of the important drivers he learned was that the majority of wrench sales were as gift items during Father’s Day and Christmas. Because the users were not the typical purchasers, gift-giving promotions were much stronger sales drivers than traditional tool marketing programs.

Understanding that he needed to appeal to the economic buyer (females) was critical for him in positioning, packaging, and promotion. When he optimized the final design, he was careful to make sure that the product felt comfortable to the female hand, because he knew that it was most likely the first hand to try the product at the point-of-purchase. 

Differentiation through the Value Chain

According to Brown, product designers should map the complete value chain, from supply through the distribution channel, in order to identify each opportunity when value will create a differentiated product experience. His market research into distribution channel needs and behaviors allowed him to strategically position the Bionic Wrench commercialization.

He developed a sales brochure and attended the National Hardware Show — a great investment, as his wrench won the Popular Mechanics 2005 Editors Choice Award. He went on to explore the costs associated with catalogs, retailers, distributors, and online and TV advertising.

It is interesting to note that Brown didn’t use the typical market research methods or focus groups, nor did he spend much time trying to determine market size and share. Instead, he went out into the market and talked to as many prospects as he could identify as future potential customers. These face-to-face meetings ensured that the new product had strategic competitive advantages.

Brown has defined his new product process as Differentiation by Design, which is also the name of his upcoming book. 

Generally, this is a holistic process of design — seeking value-adding differentiations across all aspects of the product experience and allowing the user to define whether or not you have designed a competitively advantaged product.

For industrial products, the failure rate is six out of seven concepts, two out of every three prototypes. If you can afford to absorb the financial losses then perhaps this is a good approach, but if you can’t, perhaps you should consider some of the steps described in Brown’s process.

To date, LoggerHead Tools has shipped over one million units. Find the Bionic Wrench at Sears as well as on the web at www.bionicwrench.com.

Mike Collins is the author of Saving American Manufacturing. His website is www.mpcmgt.com.

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