A Better Grip On Hawking Tools

Just four years ago, Black & Decker Corp. was battling with foreign rivals in both the professional power-tool and consumer-appliance markets. Shunning B&D, professional builders and tradesmen were snapping up innovative heavy-duty gear from the likes of Makita Corp., and American consumers were flocking to gadgets from Matsushita and Braun.

Today, the pros are doling out their dollars for Black & Decker products again. By fielding an ever-expanding line of well-designed power tools and marketing them under the trusted yet all-but-abandoned DeWalt name, B&D is back--a solid No.1 in the fiercely contested $250 million market for professional cordless drills. One example of why it is prevailing: the new DeWalt cordless, pistol-grip drill/driver, a gold-medal winner.

Not only does the drill/driver look all business, it also is comfortable enough for a carpenter who wields it all day. Stressing ergonomics, B&D designers gave the tool a cushion-grip plastic handle thin enough to grasp easily but wide enough for a battery pack that makes the tool cordless.

The designers faced some hurdles beyond "grippability" when they set out on the project in 1991: The drill had to be compact and simple to lug around, but it had to house a motor powerful enough for a pro. The designers also wanted a better motor than those available off-the-shelf. Lastly, the drill had to have a list price of $170 to $200 and be marketable globally.

Splitting the work helped. Designers at the company's Spennymoor plant in northern England handled the motor and transmission development, while engineers at the company's power-tool design center in Towson, Md., handled the battery pack and controls. That way, the company not only spread out development costs, but it also generated internal support for the product in different parts of the company.

So far, pros are warming to the tool's flexibility. They can hold the drill like a handgun with their index fingers on the trigger. Or, to apply more pressure, they can wrap a hand around the back end and squeeze the trigger with their middle fingers. It's this kind of flexibility that's allowing B&D to regain prominence in power tools.

When it comes to flexibility, nothing beats B&D's wildly successful SnakeLight. In a market where the average price is just $6, consumers are paying $30 for a product that lets them work "hands-free" under car hoods, under sinks, or in a closet.

The key to the SnakeLight is its bendable, tubular body, which can be coiled cobralike on the ground, wrapped around a pole, hung over a sink, or even draped around your feck while you work. B&D is marketing it in three forms: a white-colored body for home, a black shop model with a mounting bracket, and a red model for cars, which runs off a cigarette lighter. Form couldn't suit function any better.

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