In part one of this editorial, I discussed the international nature of large tool companies, and I laid out my basic opinion: that the “Made in…” stamp doesn’t provide enough information to determine a tool’s quality. Read on as I offer some justification for that statement and discuss the manufacturing process.
I’ve seen plenty of great stuff and plenty of poorly-made crap wearing the “Made in the USA” tag. I’ve also seen some great stuff made elsewhere — yes, even in China — as well as a significant chunk of the aforementioned crap. And I’m willing to bet that most Toolmongers can readily lay their hands (physically, or at least metaphorically) on specific tools that fall into all four categories.
But I think the evidence runs deeper than that. Over the past few years a number of tool manufacturers have offered us a look at how their tools are made and how their business processes work. While the details are almost always all off-the-record, the sum total of this experience allows us to see some industry-wide trends that are worth mentioning.
First of all, there is indeed significant difference between “cheap” and “expensive” tools. While some dishonest brands will always try to fool us by purveying the former as the latter, often a tool’s price directly relates to the manufacturing or sales environment.
Even manufacturing something as simple as a combination wrench involves many steps, from forging the basic shape to tempering, machining, and finishing. Each of these steps offers opportunities to improve the tool, and each step increases the cost of manufacturing.
For example: Often cheap-ass wrenches don’t feature as many machined details as their truck-bought, pro-line cousins. Machining off sharp edges (and radiusing square corners) dramatically decreases the chances of the tool stress-fracturing — but it ain’t cheap to do.
Don’t forget the nastiest of costs: labor. Adding quality control (QC) stations between existing manufacturing steps almost assuredly drives up the quality of the product, catching and stopping defective stock before finishing steps cover up tool (and project)-destroying flaws. But these, too add cost.
Of course, lower labor cost is one of the prime motivators for manufacturing in Asia. But consider this: How does QC work when a brand designs a product in one country, manufactures it in another, and sells it in a third? (Note that this concern holds water even if we remove Asia from the equation!) Are the products QC’d on the line during manufacture? After they arrive in the country in which they’ll be sold? Is the QC performed by locals or by employees brought from the company’s home? Does the tool company station engineers on-site at the plant or at least rotate engineers through regularly to assure that manufacturing occurs according to specifications? Oh yeah — and how tight are those specifications?
These, fellow Toolmongers, are questions you’ll never be able to answer. They’re some of the most closely-held secrets around. But they mean the world in terms of the quality of the tools you buy.
Sales environment matters, too. As many of you have mentioned in your comments on various TM posts, almost everyone offers a “lifetime warranty” on hand tools. The real question you want to ask is “How do I get a replacement tool?” The easier it is to follow those instructions — and the more liberal the manufacturer is in replacing tools damaged by misuse or abuse as opposed to true failures — the more the tool will cost.
(There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes a company will invest in its brand by offering an incredible — and maybe even unrealistic in the long-term — warranty process. When you find one of those, by all means take advantage of it. You’ll suffer through the tough times, too, so cash in when you can!)
To be continued! Check back tomorrow for part three in this editorial where we ask what the hell all this means to you.