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Fiskars Develops Its "Softouch"

Fiskars Oy Ab
Helsinki Finland

Fiskars, Inc.
7811 West Stewart Ave.
Wausau, WI 54401
www.fiskars.com

Background

The use of scissors predates written history, but the design is believed to have originated during the Bronze Age, which began about 3000 B.C. In the 18th century, steel replaced bronze and iron blades. Despite subsequent technological advances, scissors design has remained relatively unchanged for centuries, while scissors-users have not.

In 1989, a Fiskars' vice president received a one-page study from the Arthritis Foundation citing arthritis as a major concern of aging baby-boomers. Struck by the size of this population and by their own personal experiences with aging family members, Fiskars' designers began to consider how well their products were designed for this market.

Beginning in 1989, Fiskars began to develop new products based on sensitivity to the aging consumer market, particularly those with arthritis that interfered with their ability to grasp and manipulate hand tools.

Development of the "Softouch" Concept

Eighteen months after its vice president had first read about the effects of arthritis on the baby boomer generation, Fiskars had developed a prototype called the "Golden Age Scissors", based on consideration for users with arthritis.

The lightweight design accommodated both right- and left-handers equally well and offered a larger, softer grip to distribute pressure more evenly across the palm of the hand. The scissors also incorporated a lock closure and a spring assist to open the scissors, eliminating one of the tasks of cutting.

No market surveys among older or disabled customers were conducted to justify the design. It just seemed like "common sense", in the words of the designers, Jim Boda and Doug Birkholz.

As it became obvious to Fiskars designers that the product had features useful to anyone, Fiskars changed the name to reflect a less age-related focus, and the "Golden Age Scissors" became known as the "Softouch" scissors and went into production in 1991.

Fiskars "Softouch" Scissorsd
 "Softouch" Scissors

Positive Customer Feedback

Elder Fiskars customers responded that until Softouch went on the market, they had given up sewing. Children found that Softouch gave them much greater cutting ability. Businesses began to use them in production jobs to minimize the risk of repetitive motion and cumulative trauma disorders. Softouch Scissors won awards from the American Society on Aging and the Industrial Designers Society of America in 1993 and the Arthritis Foundation in 1995.

Softouch scissors were sold through a wide variety of outlets, from kitchen supply retailers to New York's Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Fiskars Softouch Scissors were even selected by the Center for Universal Design for its posters and presentations illustrating the 7 Principles of Universal Design.

Fiskars' History

Fiskars is one of the oldest companies in the western world, with deep roots in iron- and steel-working. In 1649, a Dutch merchant and owner of an ironworks was chartered to establish a blast furnace and forging operation in Fiskars, a small village in western Finland. The country was under Swedish rule at the time, and much of the nails, wire, knives, and hoes produced by the operation were sent on company ships to Stockholm.

Over the next 160 years, industrial and economic development accelerated in Europe. During this time, Fiskars developed its skills and reputation as one of the finest copper and ironworks in northern Europe. In the 1830's, the company expanded into the manufacture of forks and scissors, originally in heavy, forged steel. In 1837, Fiskars established the first machine shop in Finland and manufactured the first Finnish steamship engine the following year. Fiskars continued to develop its reputation as a premier steel and ironworks company, extending its production into architectural, industrial, agricultural, and home products.

Throughout its history, Fiskars has strived toward five principles:

      A sense of its identity and direction
      Commitment to quality
      Attention to details
      Understanding of each of its marketplaces
      Strong relationships with its customers

The Fiskars company is still controlled by descendants of the founder. The family is considered the largest landowner in Finland and a dominant force in Finland's construction, electronics, forestry, shipping, and telecommunications industries.

Fiskars in the U.S. Marketplace

Fiskars, Inc. produces nearly half the scissors sold in the US. The quality of their scissors is among the top three manufacturers in the world, including Henckels and Gingher, whose products are more expensive.

By far the largest unit, the Consumer Products Group, accounts for 94% of sales and is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. This Group manages the manufacture, sale, and worldwide distribution of three product families: scissors and other housewares products, outdoor recreation products, and lawn and garden products. With more than 60% of its sales in the US, the Consumer Products Group maintain offices in North America and Europe, as well as offices and manufacturing facilities in Fiskars, Finland. Their products are marketed under the Fiskars name as well as under the labels of some of its customers.
Fiskars Rotary Cutterd
Rotary Cutter

Spin-offs and Competition

Focus groups of 40-70 year old customers with limited hand function were conducted in the development of other Fiskars' products, IDSA award-winning Rotary Cutters and Rotary Paper Trimmer. These products were conceived in reaction to competitive rolling-cutter products from Olo and Dritz. Fiskars' advantage over these lay in superior ergonomics. In citing the design for a 1994 Industrial Design Excellence Award, jurors noted that the handle contours made it "comfortable for any size hand, allowing the user to distribute downward pressure across the hand while maintaining neutral arm position."

New Market Concept, Not Market Niche

Jim Boda and Doug Birkholz felt that the "universal design" approach had required a "paradigm shift" at Fiskars toward a broader definition of their market to include people with manual limitations, whether due to age or disability.

They noted that Fiskars Research and Development staff integrated this shift readily, but other departments, such as Lawn & Garden Products, were more conservative and resistant to redefining fundamental marketing strategy. Nevertheless, the concept took hold, and customers with limited hand function were eventually considered also in the design of garden tools such as Softouch Floral Shears, Power Lever Pro, and Softgrip Multi-Snip gardening tools. The approach was also integrated into designs for ax and shovel handles marketed by Fiskars in Europe.

Applying the Universal Design Concept

Fiskars designers agreed that introducing a new product such as Softouch or Rotary Cutter was somewhat easier than "displacing" an existing product, whether the company's own or a competitor's. They believed that market "space" was already available and waiting for a product that meets a significant need. This suggested that products reflecting Universal Design as a new paradigm were more likely to be successful than existing products facelifted or subtly altered to reflect this approach. For Fiskars, the key was to avoid designing for a specific market segment, e.g. "Golden Age Scissors" in favor of integrating features that addressed the needs of these populations with those of the general market. This, in a nutshell, is the concept of Universal Design.

Extending the Softouch Concept

Though Fiskars' Softouch products continued to sell well in 2000, the company received feedback from some customers who felt that the large grip of Softouch also brought some loss of control. So Fiskars developed a more conventionally-shaped scissors with soft inserts on the gripping surfaces.

Fiskars submitted their Softgrip Pinking Shears and Softgrip Bent Scissors to the 2000 ASA "Design for Mature Markets" competition. These designs were essentially identical in shape to their popular "orange-handle" products, but with a softer skin over the handles to reduce reduce fatigue with prolonged use.

 

Softgrip Fabric Shears, with stainless steel blades and cushioned finger holes in orange handle
Softgrip Fabric Shears

ASA judges were surprised at the contrast between these products and previous award-winning "Softouch" scissors designed nearly 10 years earlier. They felt that comfort was markedly reduced, and the inability to use them with either right or left hand was a definite drawback.

Leah Peterson, the Fiskars contact who submitted the products to the ASA competition, explained that, "Softgrip products are not a replacement for Softouch products (which continue to sell very well), but rather an extension of these popular products."

In addition to reduction in fine control due to the larger full-hand loop which replaced the finger rings of conventional designs, Ms. Peterson further explained how some customers cited difficulty with the Softouch spring-open feature, which requires a wide grip range.

Finally, Ms. Peterson also noted that the "Rotary Cutters", also featured in the previous case study, continue to be popular on the market, though a redesign was due in 2000.

Softouch Creators Move On

Jim Boda and Doug Birkholz left Fiskars in 1996 and founded Inspire Design Group, along with other members of Fiskars' technical staff who created the Softouch design. Inspire Design Group focuses on integrating their careful ergonomic research so well into product design that the user is unaware of it. Among their projects is the design of recreational products for the aging baby boomer market.

References

"Carving Out a Niche", Doug Birkholz; Innovation, Fall, 1994; Vol. 13, No. 4; Industrial Designers Society of America, Great Falls, VA, pp. 22-23.

Fiskars Worldwide History:
http://www.fiskarsbrands.com/company_history.php

"Form + Function", John Pierson; The Wall Street Journal; 11/14/94.

"Scissors and Shears", Consumer Reports, October, 1992; Vol. 57, No. 10, Consumers Union, Yonkers, NY; pp. 672-676.

October, 2000

   
           
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