Kreg Tool Leverages SOLIDWORKS, 3D Printing and Data to Update Their Industry Standard Woodworking Jig

The world of engineering is broad and encompasses a vast number of disciplines, industries and organizations. However, one thing that all engineers have in common is that they make things. Whether they design in CAD, build prototypes, develop manufacturing jigs or simply build their kid’s playset at home, engineers make things.

To make things, engineers use tools—and of course, those tools need to be engineered as well. Kreg Tool Company has been engineering tools for woodworkers since 1989, developing jigs, guides, templates and even workspaces. Kreg Tool is best known for their pocket-hole jig system, which was first patented in 1990, but that doesn’t mean that the company stopped inventing.

Kreg Tool’s pocket-hole jig system in action. (Picture courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

Same Job, New Tools

“In February, we launched a whole new series of pocket-hole joinery products, as well as three new cutting products,” explained Mark McClellan, Director of Product Engineering at Kreg Tool. “Our goal with the refreshing of products was to take a deep look at user needs and address pain points in the world of pocket-hole joinery. We really started from scratch, so the products that you’ll see out on the market now are pretty radically different than what we’ve had in the market for a decade or more.”

While engineers often find themselves actively avoiding over-engineering their projects and keeping a cautious eye on feature-creep, it is also important to recognize the need for an update. The team of engineers at Kreg was well aware of their potential to reinvent the wheel—a wheel that they invented in the first place. They saw pain points for their customers and sought to fix them.

“For these particular products, there was an immense amount of product market research that was done with some really good quantitative data to define what people struggled with and what people liked,” McClellan continued. “As we started to develop what the new products needed to do, we used data that we had pulled from real customers to identify the critical aspects and features to focus on.”

The traditional Kreg Jig is well known, so the team didn’t want to simply update their legacy product.

“Our pocket-hole jigs have been around for a long time, and we’re the innovators in that space,” said Derek Steelman, Product Development Engineering Manager at Kreg Tool.

“Pocket-holes have been around for a long while, but Kreg popularized the pocket-hole jig. We’re the benchmark that everyone is chasing down. When you’re the benchmark, after a while people start to catch up to you and you have to go out there and push those boundaries. So, we stepped back and asked, ‘How can we be innovative?’ Instead of just refreshing an old product, how do we go big and put ourselves ahead of the market? There was a lot of research into how people use these jigs.”

(Image courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

That market research and the commitment to developing a better version of a prominent product led to the new 520PRO and 720PRO Pocket-Hole Jig systems, but not without some serious product development.

Designing Tools from Napkin Sketch to Realized Product

The Kreg engineering team took the redesign of their classic product to heart. While a quick rebrand would have refreshed the tool and sold a few more units a year, the engineering team was looking to develop a truly updated version of an industry standard.

“Really, the beginning of our design process starts with, ‘What does the consumer need?’ From that, we develop multiple solutions for solving that problem out in the market,” McClellan said. Using research gathered from a broad-reaching number of sources—from message boards and social media to focus groups and influencers—the Kreg team works to discover challenges and develop solutions.

Then they enter the concept stage. This is where the engineers throw whatever ideas they can at the wall to see what sticks. “With the joinery products, as an example, we have boxes of Kreg jigs that did not and will not go to market,” McClellan continued. “We have 15 or 20 alternative pocket-hole jigs that we evaluated along the way… they’re all partially developed. We develop them in SOLIDWORKS and then we use 3D printers and other equipment to manufacture prototypes. Then we use them. Sometimes we actually put them in the hands of consumers and ask what they think.”

(Image courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

They use both FDM and SLR 3D printers to develop prototypes, as well as machining equipment such as a mill, lathe and small water jet. According to McClellan, their basic machine shop allows the team to produce 80-90 percent of their prototypes in-house. For the rest, they use prototyping services for things such as tooling up components that might eventually need to be molded. Their prototyping lab has a developed submission system that allows their engineers to submit designs and often have parts ready the next day. “It really allows for a rapid, iterative process to try and get the concepts out there and tested quickly,” McClellan said.

Steelman explained, “Some of the ways we develop our market research and are able to use feedback from customers is thanks to the rapid prototyping capabilities like 3D printing. We have much faster, much lower-cost prototyping options than we used to have in the past. Part of our innovative nature is that we want to solve problems for the customer, and so we are always looking for ways to get and use that information from users. Some of these rapid prototyping options really give us that ability to get it in front of users and learn a lot in these early stages before we go into further development. Both quantitative stuff like accuracy, but also more subtle qualitative stuff like ergonomics and usability.”

(Image courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

According to the team, those qualitative metrics are key to keeping Kreg on the cutting edge of their market. Considering industrial design early in the development process allows the engineers to design around these key elements of their products.

“The new jigs are a great example of applying industrial design for useability,” McClellan said. “If you look through Kreg’s history of our pocket-hole jigs, you can see where useability and ergonomic leaps have been made since our founder started the company. In the past three or four years, it’s been quite important to bring in that industrial design concept much sooner and really take those concepts into account. You can definitely see how we’ve placed handles and the sizes and shapes of touch points to make the product easier and more intuitive to use.”

McClellan continued, “At the beginning of this whole concept process, we diverge a bit, in terms of how we solve the problem. In doing that, we find different pros and cons of those concepts and we start to converge on a single concept that we want to finish the development on. That convergence then becomes a balancing act of meeting the consumer needs with cost and schedule needs.”

How to Not Reinvent the Wheel

The Kreg engineers see their team as innovators and are dedicated to simply making better tools for woodworkers. When it came to their legacy product, the pocket-hole jig, they saw competitors catching up with their previous innovation.

“We’re always looking ahead,” said Steelman. “To be honest, the conversation with the new pocket-hole jigs before we started was, ‘Do we really need to do this?’ There was definitely rising competition in the space, and there was a consensus that this wasn’t just a redesign for the sake of redesigning a product. We knew that we needed to do something meaningful here.”

Steelman explains how many employees in the Kreg organization use SOLIDWORKS to develop and move through the engineering process; but for obvious reasons, the heaviest users are the design engineers. “They’re doing solid and surface modeling, as well as FEA analysis where we feel it’s necessary. But we also use it in our quality and production areas to design fixtures for assembly and pack out on products. We also use the plastic simulation for mold flows, gate locations and ejectors. Obviously, we utilize some of our toolmakers for insight on those things, but the simulation gives us good opportunities to analyze and optimize our part designs before we go into production.”

(Image courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

While the engineers use SOLIDWORKS for obvious reasons, Kreg also sees the software as an effective communication tool. Shelby Strempke, Senior Product Development Engineer at Kreg, explained, “It’s a tool. Just like a mechanic uses a wrench and a carpenter uses a hammer, SOLIDWORKS is our main tool. We use it as a communication tool with many people in the company to help bring our ideas to life. It’s a visual tool. It’s easier to work cross-functionally with different individuals in the organization if you have a visual concept. Otherwise, you’re verbalizing ideas or sketching concepts by hand. When you can just share a model, it makes it much easier to navigate.”

Even when working on the new design of an old product, much of the team’s product development effort is spent trying to maintain a cost target that allows them to sell their product to consumers at a reasonable price. Leveraging a system like SOLIDWORKS throughout the organization allows them to keep track of designs and simulations, but also generating BOMs and rapidly developing cost-estimates for concept-stage products.

Steelman explained that one of the biggest challenges at Kreg is translating their early ideas into concepts that they can then quantify data from consumers. That’s why this part of the process was so vital to the new pocket-hole jigs. “It’s a very fluid time of the development process and that can be a challenge,” he said.

While the team wouldn’t divulge their timeline for developing the newest jig products, McClellan explained, “Timelines vary for going from concept to delivered product. When you talk about the concept phase, that could last anywhere from four weeks to 12 months. Depending on the complexity of the problem and the market need, we may allow ourselves more time so we can come up with a more innovative solution. We spend a good amount of time in that diverging phase before we converge on a more focused design.”

They wanted to be sure that there was reason to start redesigning their legacy product, and they found it. To any user of their previous jig systems, it’s obvious that they have really taken ergonomics and usability into consideration.

(Image courtesy of Kreg Tool Company.)

Innovating with Customers in Mind

Engineers that design consumer products understand the challenges that come with ever-changing public opinion. Kreg saw the needs of the customers boiling up and growing competition challenging their long-standing designs, so they took to innovating.

“Ultimately, we do everything possible to ensure that the product we’re producing is going to meet the customer expectations. It’s not until the day that it reaches the masses that we really know for sure that we’ve hit the mark, but that’s why we gather all the consumer data and conduct the testing that we do,” McClellan said.

What an engineer develops, what a customer needs and what actually gets produced can often differ wildly, but Kreg has made an effort to cultivate an innovative culture that focuses on their users: woodworkers.

“As I’m working through designs I’m always thinking about the consumer,” Strempke said. “I’m thinking about ways to make the design more intuitive and not intimidating to the user. I’m also always thinking about cost. We want to make products that are affordable to the masses. As engineers, we can design almost any product given ample time, infinite cost and budget, but the cost can quickly skyrocket and become out of reach for the typical consumer.”

Of course, most of the employees are woodworkers themselves, so there is often little concern of getting myopic or finding new projects. The key that this organization has discovered is to listen to their users first, then do relentless research and develop products from there.

To learn more about SOLIDWORKS, check out the whitepaper Gain Competitive Advantage with Product Data Management.

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