“This is the holy grail,” says Colin Roberts, an industrial designer at Fiskars, as he hands me a pair of orange-handled scissors with a dramatically offset blade. “This is what sewers tell us all the time, that they want a scissors that doesn’t lift their fabric.”
The conference room table at Fiskars’s Madison, Wisconsin U.S. headquarters is littered with the process of scissor innovation: piles of cut-out foam scissors held together by double-pronged clasps, grainy 3-D-printed prototypes, and sharp finished models. Roberts grabs a pair of classic scissors to demonstrate how, when he cuts a piece of fabric on the table, the bottom handle forces it into a tent. The uniquely shaped new design, meanwhile, keeps the fabric flat—which is a big enough deal that, even when still in foam form, the model was a hit with the Madison Area Sewing Guild. “The ladies just freaked out,” Roberts remembers. “They said, ‘You have to make us a bigger one. Make us an 8-inch. Make us a 9-inch.’ And we said okay.” Fiskars plans to sell what it now calls “RazorEdge Fabric Shears for Tabletop Cutting” starting this winter.
It will be just one of many new scissor-like products Fiskars releases this year. The company began manufacturing scissors in the 1830s. It has been tweaking plastic-handled scissor design since it created its first orange pair in 1967. And miraculously, after 48 years, it is not out of ideas.
In 2014 and 2015 alone, Fiskars is on track to release 245 new types of scissors, garden shears, loppers, craft punches, and other cutting tools. Some of these new products are small updates—changing a grip or making a fashion adjustment–but 72 of them are what the company calls “new innovations,” products like those funny-looking fabric shears that the sewing guild liked so much.
Fiskars, a 365-year-old company, tackled the obvious variations of what would eventually become its flagship product decades ago, making a pair of left-handed scissors, for instance, back in 1972. Today’s design team needs to dig deeper for new ideas like loppers with a pivoting gear and a technology for cutting thick materials that is complicated enough to warrant its own explanatory video on the Fiskars website.
Sometimes ideas like these come from observing communities like the Madison Area Sewing Guild. Sometimes they come from a public idea portal on the Fiskars website. Often they’re developed based on a broad directive from the marketing department like “we’ve found that people are starting to cut a lot of thick things like burlap and leather” (blame Pinterest).
For the later trend, Fiskars already had a relevant technology that a Fiskars engineer in Finland had patented in 2003, sans product. It allowed the blades of scissors to move in a way that is better for cutting thick materials, and turning that concept into what is now called the “Amplify Mixed Media” line of scissors only took about 18 months.
Other directives aren’t so, shall we say (because really, who could resist?), “clear cut.” When it was time to make the next generation of a lopper that had already been improved with the addition of a gear, for instance, there weren’t any ideas on hand. Engineers proposed a pair shaped like a wishbone instead of a V, handles that shifted gears like a bike when you opened them wider, and a long handle that worked like a crane for reaching high branches. Someone built a model out of Legos.
All of these ideas worked, in theory at least. But a new design also needs to sell. That means it needs to look different enough from its predecessors so that people understand what they’re getting for their money, but not so different—like a crane-necked lopper—that they might not recognize it as the familiar tool they’re looking for at the store. And sure, you can get 30% more force out of a lopper that has a strap for wedging it against your stomach, but that’s not really safe. The idea that won out, which will be introduced as PowerGear2 later this year, improved the force of the tool by maximizing leverage at the point in the cutting movement in which people have the least power, but it didn’t change much aesthetically.
These are the types of ideas that come from people who have spent years thinking about cutting tools. Simplicity, it turns out, is a matter of perspective. And if you are the team designing scissors, scissors are not simple. You know how big the 90th percentile finger is, what the term anthropometrics means, and how tight the screw needs to be so that it’s loose enough to work with, but hard enough to cut. “You know all the little intricacies,” Roberts says, “so you can start getting into what is different.”
Coming up with a concept is just the starting point. Refining new product ideas usually requires about 30 rounds in the foam stage, about 10 rounds of 3-D-printed models, and two to three manufactured sample versions. During that process, they’re tested consistently; both among test users like the sewing guild (the seamstresses told Roberts, for instance, that the first version of tabletop cutting shears he initially brought was useless unless it was bigger) and in more organized venues. With the new lopper, the engineering team, design team, and quality control team took an afternoon off to put a lifetime of typical use on a lopper, which is about 5,000 to 8,000 separate cuts. “We put 10 years of wear on them, and then said, ‘Oh, it’s still working, hurray!’” says Dan Cunningham, a design engineer who works on Fiskars’s R&D.
For these types of tests, Fiskars has built what looks like a torture chamber for scissors. There is a machine that uses a prototype to cut thousands of snips out of a moving roll of paper in order to test how long it will take for a blade to dull and a spectrometer for testing the exact shade of Fiskars orange, which the company has trademarked. The particularly gruesome tests include a machine that drills down into a blade with a point to test how hard it is, and another tries to pull handles off of blades to test whether they’re safe. In one corner there’s a machine that looks like an aquarium—if aquariums were meant to kill things quickly—that spews a corrosive mist. “If you put your car in this it would just rust in five hours,” Paul Pratt, the lead test engineer, tells me.
Not all of these devices are meant to torture scissor prototypes for test purposes. Some are necessary for building those prototypes in the first place. When the team was developing its idea for the new lopper, it was based on knowing the point at which people have the most power while they’re cutting, and they came to this lab to find out. First Cunningham and the test team built a machine to which they could attach a lopper at different fixed widths. Then they had about 60 people squeeze as hard as they could at different points in the cut stroke. A force meter inside showed that people were strongest at the beginning of the cut, with the handles wide open, which informed the design.
It’s the kind of detailed information about cutting tools that you probably don’t care about. But if you had been thinking about scissors for the past five years or so, it might look like a gold mine of potential. “Maybe it’s not just gender specific, but age specific,” Cunningham says of the data. “Say you want a lopper that is tuned to the 60-year-old-plus. That’s going to be a different lopper than the one for a 25-year-old.”
And if it’s not age-specific loppers that keep Fiskars stocked with new ideas this year, word from the marketing research has it that—blame Pinterest again–cutting very detailed shapes will soon be all the rage. “We’ve already started,” Roberts says.