Thursday, October 13, 2005

Illinois Tool Works

TIA Daily regular contributor Gene Barth writes:

Illinois Tool Works is company whose businesses are literally the nuts and bolts - as well as welders, spray guns, plastic wrap and pallets -- of industrial manufacture. ITW's heart is culture of innovation ruthlessly focused on delivering effective - and then still more effective - manufacturing solutions to its customers. ITW has its own patent society. Founded in 1969, the ITW Patent Society "recognizes the patent contributions of its product design and engineering people from our worldwide business units with a dinner awards ceremony, currently held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. To date, we have approximately 700 members in the Patent Society, ranging from our CEO to salesmen to engineers and technicians." In 2004, ITW had more than 16,000 unexpired patents and pending patent applications worldwide, including 2,900 U.S. patents and 1,116 pending U.S. applications.

19 of those patents and 18 of the patents pending belong to Kenneth LeVey, a product development director at ITW. According to LeVey, an ITW product development director is a lucky fellow whom ITW pays and then allows the "freedom to sit and ponder".

In the first few years of the twenty-first century, LeVey was pondering "the business end of [a chisel that he had just bought at home depot.] If only he could wrap teensy chisel tips into the threads of a screw, it could chip its way into a tight seat instead of compressing and cracking the concrete. He traveled to ITW factories around the country, asking the wizened experts how it could be done. "I got laughed out the door," LeVey says."

In the September 19th issue of Forbes Magazine, Jonathan Fahey explains in just two pages how LeVey advanced screw design and tooling 70 years in order to put "teensy chisel tips into the threads of a screw".

Before LeVey reinvented screw design and manufacture, all screw threads were simple helical ridges with a triangular cross-section. The only difference between one screw thread and the next was separation between ridges, the height of ridges, and the shape of the triangular cross-section. It would be as though the tire industry made only one simple tread pattern regardless of the surface that the tire would be rolling over. Or as though the athletic shoe industry stuck to one tread for city walking, basketball courts, trail running, and mountain hiking.

LeVey succeeded in replacing the helical ridge of a screw with a helical TREAD, a tread matched to the material that the screw must first cut into and then hold fast. A tire or a pair of shoes costs many tens of dollars. LeVey succeeded in putting a tread on items that sell for pennies, nickels, and dimes. In doing so, he lifted ITW's screws out of the commodity market and into the market of specialty items. Ten years ago, a lower cost competitor underbid ITW for General Motors' threaded fastener business.

Recently, GM placed a 60 million-unit order with GM for its BosScrew - a uniquely TREADED fastener for plastic.

Read the full story here.

-- Gene Barth (ebarth@rover.uchicago.edu)

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