The Fiskars building in Middleton, Wisconsin, is a calm, beautiful space, with images from the company’s storied history decorating its halls and walls of bright windows overlooking Pheasant Branch Creek. But hidden behind a thick, soundproof door, the test lab on the lower level is anything but tranquil. Machines wielding scissors snip endless rolls of paper, automated loppers snap the tips off hundreds of hardwood dowel rods, custom-built machines rub garden hoses till they wear through, and sprinklers jet nonstop streams of water in enclosed plexiglass cases until they blow a gasket. In charge of this ultramarathon of crafting and garden tools is a squad of UW-Madison materials science and engineering alums.
In fact, four out of five engineers in the Fiskars quality department have UW-Madison materials science degrees, including Quality Manager Jon Ponty (BSMS&E ’93), Senior Quality Engineer/Product Compliance Tracy Melin (MSMS&E ’91), Quality Engineer Nick Belton (BSMS&E ’12) and Quality Engineer Max Weiland (BSMS&E ’17).
Their job is to make sure each element of each product produced by the company, which specializes in gardening, sewing, cooking, crafting and home improvement tools, meets or exceeds its high standards. That often means pushing the tools till their handles crack, their screws shear off, or their blades dull.
Ensuring quality is especially important since Fiskars offers a lifetime warranty on most of its products. “If we’re designing a new hedge shear, for instance, we want it to be durable and we want the blades to be sharp,” explains Melin. “And then, from a quality standpoint, we go in and make sure that all those properties are met or all those features are there in the prototypes. We do durability tests, life-cycle testing, things like that, making sure that when the consumer gets the product, it will perform as expected for as long as they expect it to last.”
For Fiskars, those expectations are high. The team makes sure products meet, and often exceed, industry standards. Scissors, for instance, need to withstand tens of thousands of snips on heavy paper and still be able to cut fabric in order to measure up. “We kind of want to go above and beyond just the standard minimal testing for scissors and other things,” Melin says. “We’ve designed some of our own equipment to do cycle testing; we cycle a product until failure.”
Fiskars is a global company based in Finland with roots stretching back to 1649, when the Fiskars ironworks was established. Most people in the United States, however, first learned of the brand the 1970s, when its first plastic-handled scissors reached North America. Those bright orange handles, in a now-trademarked shade called Fiskars Orange™, were a worldwide sensation. Fiskars has sold more than 1 billion pairs globally, and the iconic scissor design has even earned a spot in the Museum of Modern Art.
But the innovations didn’t stop there. Since then, Fiskars has designed and innovated hundreds of related products, registering more than 500 patents. In 2016, after outgrowing its headquarters on Madison’s east side, the company opened its new 108,000 square-foot building in Middleton, which coordinates all the brand’s operations in North, Central and South America.
Because Fiskars’ standards are so high, testing is a long process, and since its products can come in various configurations and designs based on the demands of retailers, the quality team needs to sometimes assess multiple versions of the same tool. “The lifespan of some of the products, especially on the crafting side, is long. And it can take a while to get what we consider a reasonable lifespan,” says Belton. “So, when you make a slight change to a product and decide to retest a configuration it can be tough, and you might not get the sample back for a week or two. But it’s fun, and you always learn a lot through testing.”
The team also tests the metals used in its products for defects and hardness and has a clean room equipped with a micro-high-res microscope, VHX digital microscope, and Thermo Fisher Scientific Niton XRF x-ray analyzer to test parts for heavy metals.
All that analysis helps the company innovate as well. In recent decades, Fiskars has focused on making products more ergonomic, with some products endorsed by the Arthritis Foundation. Other innovations include adding plasma coatings, once used in the semiconductor industry, to knife blades, and using special gears to add mechanical advantage to pruning tools. “I like the innovation Fiskars promotes,” says Ponty, who has worked at the company since 2012. “We try to take what other folks are doing and innovate further than that. The launches where you’re breaking new ground are the most fun to work on.”
Weiland says that even though people have designed and redesigned many of these tools for decades, they still find areas to tweak, even in things as common as saw blades, one of the products he works on. “There’s room for improvement. You’d think if there was one way that worked really well, everybody would do it. But in the marketplace, it’s kind of all over the place,” he says.
All of the engineers say UW-Madison’s materials science and engineering program was great preparation for working in the quality engineering field. “The department was very good at teaching the fundamentals of materials engineering and understanding mechanically how all that works,” says Belton. “That was really good for learning new things. It’s a broad discipline, which is very nice.”
For Melin, the wide range of classes she took during her master’s coursework was immediately applicable. “Right after I graduated, I accepted a job with IBM making computer chips. We had glass insulators, metal, electrical lines, nitride insulators, and everything in between layered together,” she says. “I used every single course I had in the materials science department to work in that area.”
That breadth of experience has come in handy at Fiskars, too, she says, where products combine various types of metals with rubber, polypropylene, nylon, and all sorts of other materials.
Melin, for one, has stayed involved with the College of Engineering, serving as an advisor and counselor for the Society of Women Engineers student chapter for the last 12 years. Fiskars has also offered internships to UW-Madison students in a variety of fields, including engineering and business.
Melin says it’s no mystery why so many quality engineers come from the same department. “UW-Madison materials science covers all the disciplines: ceramics, plastics, semiconductors, glass, metallurgy, even water chemistry,” she says. “It is very hands-on. And when you go into industry, it’s the same thing. So, it was really good training for going out and getting a job with one of the big companies.”
Author: Jason Daley