Editor: Here we have our first ever True I.D. Story from a manufacturer! In this story you'll read how an iconic product, one with more than one billion units sold, came into existence through a combination of careful design planning, manufacturing knowledge and serendipitous happenstance.
At more than a foot long and weighing nearly two pounds, this brass-handled implement feels more like something from Game of Thrones and less like a tool for working fabric:
This is a pair of Fiskars tailor's shears from 1896, probably the best that money could buy at the time, and they had to be—they were extremely expensive. So the task set to Fiskars designer Olof Bäckström in the mid-1960s must have sounded like something from 1966's "Mission: Impossible" TV show: Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to re-design this tool for both mass-manufacturability and affordability using modern-day production methods and materials.
Fiskars had been producing these heavy-duty shears since the 1830s, and they were functionally perfect. But that perfection came with a price tag so high that only the wealthy or a professional tailor investing in his business could justify the cost. Fiskars wanted to produce a similar pair at a price so low that anyone could afford them. And they intended to accomplish this using design and manufacturing know-how.
First off, the cost of the 1800s tailor's shears was tied to the manufacturing. Any industrial designer or metalworker should understand why these shears were so expensive to make. The chunky blades were made of forged steel, meaning some guy with Popeye forearms had to stand over an anvil and bang the things over and over again with a hammer. The ergonomic, curvaceous handles were made of brass, cast in a mold, and it then took a different craftsman a lot of re-work to get rid of the flashing and render them perfectly smooth.
The first logical way to get the cost down would be to replace the expensive brass handles with plastic. Never mind the cost of the brass material itself—the re-work to get the handles smooth and hand-friendly after they came out of the mold was what made the handles so pricey to produce. But at this point Fiskars had been producing Fiskamin goods out of plastic, giving them the manufacturing know-how to work this relatively new stuff. Bäckström redesigned the handles in plastic, which would come out of the mold nice and smooth, requiring a minimum of re-work; removing plastic flashing is significantly easier than removing metal flashing.
A modern-day pair
A modern-day pair
The second challenge was to replace the expensive blade-forging process with something else. Fiskars knew metals, and reasoned that if they used high-quality steel and stamp-cut the blades out of sheets, rather than forging them, the price would drop tremendously while the quality could be maintained—in theory. To test this out, they set up an internal research project with two developmental groups, one team working with forging, the other team working with stamping.
The stamping group--a sort of "rocket science" division in the words of Fiskars' designer/engineer Heikki Savolainen—was able to hit the quality mark right around launch time, which would make it the go-to production method. (Interestingly, Savolainen mentions that some early plastic-handled scissors with forged blades actually were released into the wild. "I have only seen a couple of [such] pairs...[they] are almost collector's items.")
Finally, prior to assembly, the blades of the scissors would then be ground and honed using a machine they'd designed for the purpose.
So far this is all nuts-and-bolts ID. But what happened next was a bit more surprising.
Fiskars did market research to figure out what color to make the scissor handles. The range of colors used in the Fiskamin line had been a success, so it made sense to ask potential buyers what colors they'd like to see. The consumer input came back highlighting three desired colorways: Black, green or red.
Bäckström got the mold ready for the prototypes, which were to be presented at a staff meeting for a final vote on which color to go with. The machine operator clamped the mold into the injection molding machine, the same machine that had previously been cranking out Fiskamin product and specifically, the base of the juicer you see in the background of the photo below:
As a result, there was some orange plastic still left in the hopper of the injection molding machine.
For you non-ID'ers, the way plastic goes through an injection molding machine is similar to what you see in a 3D printer: Solid plastic—filaments in the case of 3D printing, little pellets with an injection molding machine—is heated up, melted, and squirted out of a nozzle to make the part. With an injection molding machine, once you've got a particular color of pellet left over inside, you can either squirt it all out into empty space and waste it, then clean the machine out with solvents to get ready for the next color. Or you can add your new color—say, green—into the hopper on top of the orange, and run it through the molds, producing a batch of weird orange-green product until the ones at the end eventually start coming out all green.
Rather than squirt the orange out and waste it, the machine operator decided to use it up in the mold. So the first handles to be molded were orange. That was not the assignment, but while he was getting to the red, black and green handles, he observed that the orange actually looked pretty good, and he submitted them in addition to the ones that were the "correct" color.
The machine operator wasn't the only one who thought they looked good, and the orange pair made it into the production meeting. As the prototypes were passed around the table, the red and the green ones were cast aside, and the orange and the black ones were the last men standing. A vote was taken to decide which would go into production. Orange won, nine votes to seven. This meeting happened on May 10th of 1967, and we know this because the company actually saved the meeting notes for posterity:
The scissors went into production in 1967 and achieved tremendous success. Unlike Fiskamin, the scissors made their way to U.S. shores, where demand was so high Fiskars built a U.S. factory in '70s to meet it. Global demand was also high, prompting Fiskars to build a larger factory back in Finland.
After more than 300 years of existence, Fiskars now, with this single new product, became a global household name in less than a decade. And their name became strongly associated not only with high-quality scissors, but the bright orange color of the handles, which resulted from the leftover contents of a single injection molding machine.
To date they produce the highest-selling scissors in the world, having sold over one billion units worldwide; in the 'States alone, nearly two-thirds of households own something that says Fiskars on it. Over the years their basic scissors have received periodic design tweaks, with subtle changes to the handle and the blade geometry, and a screw has been added to the hinge for maintenance; but overall the modern-day variant is still recognizable as a direct descendant of the first mass-manufactured pair.
By harnessing their knowledge of design, manufacturing and materials, the company had succeeded in creating an affordable pair of precision household tools, putting them in the hands of common folks. The shears from the 1800s cost a tailor one month's salary to purchase, but these new orange-handled scissors coming off the line in 1967 could be purchased by the average factory worker with just an hour or two's worth of wages. And households snapped them up.
"It was," says Savolainen, "the democratization of the scissors."