Jun 05, 2023

What’s In A Tool? A Case For Made In USA.

A lot of people make the argument that you can’t go wrong buying a tool made in USA, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, etc. They swear that any Chinese tool will be garbage and it’s not worth purchasing them. Now, any discerning mind will say, “Wait a minute, why? China has a huge economy, experienced people, and the ability to use all the scary chemicals that make the best steel. Why would their tools be any better or worse than ours?” It’s a very valid argument. There are lots of Chinese tools that are the best in the world. Most of what we see in our stores are not. So what is the difference. Why does a country who can make the best tools not make the best tools? Surely it isn’t purely cost cutting. Is it cultural? The opinion I wish to put forth is that it’s a matter of design intent communication.

I’ve worked as an engineer in industry. The one common thread between a quality product and a bad product has always been this, ”Is the person who designed the product involved in making the product?” If the person or peoples who imbued the design intent into the original product are actively involved in and working towards the execution of that product, that product has a vastly greater chance of being good. Or in other words: outsourcing doesn’t produce a bad product because the new people making the product don’t care. It makes a bad product because the people who understand the intent behind the product are separated from its execution.

Let’s take the Crescent wrench as an example. Crescent wrenches used to be made in USA. In the past few years they have begun to make them in China. We can spot many visual differences right away. The new Crescent wrench has a different shape, the logo has changed and the stamping for the logo is dodgy, and worse, the tool just doesn’t operate as well as it used to. The jaws aren’t as hard and they wiggle more. What happened? How could Crescent mess up their flagship so badly. Surely they intended just to cut costs, not to reduce quality. This isn’t shameful in itself

What happened to the Crescent wrench is easily explained by anyone who has seen a product from design to execution before. A factory in the USA set out to make a good adjustable wrench. Hundreds of engineers and employees worked in a building to make a good wrench. When their machines didn’t work, they came up with solutions. When their quality was lacking, they implemented better processes. They had a list of trusted suppliers. They could guarantee that the materials that came in would be imbued with their vision and intent when the product came out. The intent and will of all those people built up in one place over time.

When Crescent changed manufacturers we can easily predict the mistakes made. “Hey, since we’re switching suppliers lets change up the design a bit, it’s stale.” So they hired a designer. “Hey, the logo is old, let’s put in a new one.” So they made another small change. “Oh, the supplier got back to us and said new forge tooling would be a couple million dollars, but if we modified one of the shapes they have in stock we can save half that!” Good job Jenkins, you did the company well. Small changes and negotiations like this lose sight of the design intent that the wrench started with. These mistakes are usually not evil, they’re just lacking in a philosophical understanding of the product and what went into it all these years. They lose all that combined will and intent by mistake and innocent neglect.

I would like to point out that the same thing could happen to a product that is simply around too long. Many of Starret’s top-of-the-line dial calipers now use a plastic dial ring instead of a metal one. It’s weaker and worse, and while it has no real impact on the instrument’s ability to measure, it feels worse in the hand. This is an example of a company not communicating its intent to itself over time. Shifting the goals for a product because they weren’t explained properly. I doubt anyone over there set out to make a worse product, they just saw a good way to save money. Losing the value for the things that made the product great.

It’s sort of like that one broken window. An abandoned neighborhood and factory will stay unmolested for years until the first window is broken. The rest soon follow and the place falls into disarray.

So, using this knowledge can you learn anything about a product’s quality just by reading it’s description? Well, mostly yes. I’m sorry that I can’t make this more scientific for you, but some of it revolves around developing a good intuition. Seeing how much of a product’s design intent made it into the product description is a good way. Apple is great at this. Apple talks about the materials, the circuitry, the processes, and the design intent of every product they make. It shows in the final product. No one can argue that apple’s products aren’t beautiful. That they aren’t wonderfully made. Whether or not the OS is good or whether it’s “the best.” — maybe. Now if you look at a competitor’s product, say a cheap HiQ from Shenzhen. You read about what the product can do, what it’s price is, but not its intent.

You can do this with screwdrivers too. Let’s compare Harbor Freight and Snap-On. Two tool makers in wildly different classes of quality.

You can see the company’s pride in their product. Pittsburgh says “It’s a screw driver made of the regular stuff that’s cheap.” That’s their design intent. Nothing wrong with that, but the intent was price not screw turning. Snap-On, however, says “This is why we did the things we did, this is what makes ours the best” Their intent was a device that turns screws. You can get a sense for the intent everyone shares for making a good screw driver, and it shows in their product.

I’d like to close by pointing out Chinese companies that do make some nice stuff. All those Harbor Freight, Princess Auto, etc milling machines for sale are actually knock-offs of a Chinese company called Rong Fu. Their mills are pretty dang good because the company’s design intent is close to its production. Likewise they have the higher price to match. Although I’ve heard, somewhat ironically, that Rong Fu outsourced their castings from the original Taiwan shop and moved to mainland China, seeing a quality drop along the way. I should also mention the venerable Rigol, whose oscilloscopes we all know and love. They have their own slew of knock-offs made in their own country, but no one can argue that their scopes aren’t wonderful. Lastly I’d like to mention a US company that outsources successfully: SawStop. While their machines are made in Taiwan, they specifically set up shop there and went through the trouble of installing engineers, managers, etc. on site to make sure the design intent of the product comes though.

So next time you buy a tool. Check where it was made and ask yourself. Are the people who understand this tool’s intent involved in the making of the tool. It’s not about their facilities. Someone who never 3d prints can’t make a good printer. A company that makes measuring tapes, but has no one who uses measuring tapes employed isn’t going to make a good product. They are only going to be good at the process of making measuring tapes. The more steps a company can bring under the control of those with the intent the better a product will be. Is their pride mentioned in the packaging? Can I tell from the precision that it’s made with? Can I compare it to something lesser and something more? This is the best way to increase your chances of a good buy. Intent is what makes a good product, not a country, everything else is just melted rocks and dinosaurs that came along for the ride.