Prototypes to Power Tools

Power Tools of the Trade

Look in any garage and there’s a good chance you’ll find a Black & Decker power tool. Visit any construction site and you’ll likely find drills, saws, sanders, nailers and other power tools with the DeWALT moniker.

In fact, pick just about any project requiring power tools, and these brands find common use. But before they reach the hands of people across America, these popular power tools get their start on another tool . . . a Haas machining center.

Many successful businesses got their start in the founder’s garage . . . but Black & Decker got its start on a kitchen table. It was 1917 when company founders S. Duncan Black and Alonzo B. Decker sat down and conceived the first portable drill. Designed with a previously unheard-of pistol shape and convenient trigger power switch, the Black & Decker portable drill quickly became the industry standard, replacing the 50-pound monstrosities of yore that required several people to operate them.

This innovation was just the beginning for Black & Decker, a company that is now a $5 billion global corporation, and the world’s largest producer of power tools and accessories.


Well known for its orange and black color scheme, the name Black & Decker understandably brings to mind power tools, but the company also owns concerns that manufacture faucets (Price Pfister), locks (Kwikset) and fasteners (Emhart Fastenings). The company acquired DeWALT in 1960, and established the brand as a division of Black & Decker a decade later. An innovative company in its own right, DeWALT revolutionized the woodworking industry in 1922 with the invention of the first radial arm saw.

Another revolution occurred in 1992, when Black & Decker introduced the DeWALT line of portable electric power tools for residential contractors, remodelers and professional woodworkers. Powered by rechargeable batteries, these versatile devices freed operators from the restrictive tethers of extension cords and electrical outlets. In just two years, sales of the bright yellow tools soared from zero to $300 million.

The popularity of DeWALT and Black & Decker power tools has led to constant development of new products. The company’s industrial design department, located in Towson, Maryland, uses Haas machining centers to quickly deliver prototypes of new models.

At first glance, Black & Decker’s 3,000-square-foot industrial design department looks more like a laboratory than a machine shop. Then you notice several older milling machines and a pair of new Haas machining centers: a VF-3 and a Mini Mill. The Haas machines are used to produce models of new products prior to manufacturing in order to test their look and feel. Models are usually made from foam or modeling board (such as Ren Shape®), and can vary dramatically in size. As the DeWALT line has expanded to include such tools as air compressors and generators, the corresponding models have gotten much larger.

“The biggest reason for getting the VF-3 was the capacity,” says John Reed, master prototype specialist. “We were running into more and more large parts, so we needed a bigger machine.”

Initially attracted to the large travels of the VF-3, they enhanced the machine’s capabilities further by adding a high-speed spindle and the High-Speed Machining option to help them better meet deadlines. Since Black & Decker introduces new products continuously, they wanted to shorten the time between development and bringing the product to market.

“The Haas machines help us meet our deadlines,” Reed explains. “There’s pressure to get models out. Every day the product is delayed from being on the market is one day of sales we’re losing. So it’s important to speed up product development.”

New products are designed using the Catia CAD system, and then Reed and his team convert the program into G code for the Haas machines. Dean Torantore, the department programming and machining champion, loves the speed of the VF-3. “I can get the information, program the machine and then the designer can see the part before he leaves for the day,” Torantore says.

“I like the size and speed of the Haas,” he continues. “I can turn over a lot of models in a short amount of time. I can crank up the rpm and let it fly. With the high rpm, I can get away with running really high feedrates.”

The industrial design department almost didn’t buy the VF-3 back in March 2000. What changed their minds was another shop’s ability to meet deadlines. “We had a job that had to be done really quickly, so we sent it out to another shop,” relates Reed. “They got the job on a Friday and got it back to us on Monday. We asked them, How did you turn this around so fast? They had a Haas machine with a high-speed spindle and High-Speed Machining on it. That switched our thinking about buying a CNC machine from another manufacturer, and we went with the Haas machines.”

Price was another consideration, says Reed. “We’re always looking to spend the least possible, so price was important. But with Haas, you get the most features for the price.”

To mill parts such as the pistol grip of a power drill, Black & Decker’s industrial design department created a unique fixturing system that allows accurate positioning of parts for initial machining, or for remachining if changes are required. “First, we drill and tap holes in the back of the part so we can attach dowel pins and spacers,” says Reed. “Then, we attach the part to a subplate on the machine’s table that is drilled with a series of holes for the pins. The 10 mm spacers allow the part to sit up in the air for machining. Using the G52 offset, we always know where we are when we put something on the machine. It saves us a lot of time.”

The special fixturing and the high-speed capability of the machine have helped the department increase production and beat deadlines. “The designers can have a good visual of the product right away, which is something they haven’t seen from this shop before,” says Torantore. “I love using the Haas mills. I wish I could afford one for my garage.”

Just north of Baltimore, Black & Decker’s world headquarters houses a second model shop that also uses Haas machining centers. Dubbed the Prototype Model Shop – a 4,000-square-foot shop where 18 machinists make parts for working prototypes – it acquired its first Haas in 1998.

“The reason we went with Haas was because we needed to have more accurate CNC equipment,” explains Sidney Pritchett, model maker. “We have some other machines, and we had problems with those. The Haas machines are more accurate and reliable.” The shop has four Haas machines: two VF-2s, one VF-0E and one Mini Mill.

While the shop has a collection of other machining centers, there is no doubt which ones the model makers like best. “I think the Haas machines are the best in the shop,” says Pritchett. Model maker Mike Cochran is quick to agree. “It’s like lightning to switch from one job to the next. I can do five to six different jobs a day, and that includes programming. I can work faster on a Haas than a manual machine, no matter how easy or hard the job is. I can bust through a lot of jobs with the Haas machines.”

Getting new products to market keeps Black & Decker’s model makers busy making molds and machining other parts. To meet tight deadlines, they often set up parts on the Haas machines to run unattended at night. “Our older machines had problems handling large programs, so it was impractical to run unattended. The Haas machines can handle complex programs with multiple fixtures,” says Pritchett. “I can run one program to do multiple pieces in multiple vises.”

Right from the start, the model makers liked the Haas control. “A lot of the guys who hadn’t worked with the Haas machines before were able to use the control with a minimal amount of supervision,” notes Pritchett. “The control is very easy to use, and it’s great being able to set fixture offsets with one push of a button.”

Parts for new working prototypes are designed by Black & Decker’s engineering department using Catia. The model makers, who do both the machining and programming, then take the solid models and convert them to G code. The programs are then downloaded to the Haas machines via the RS-232 port.

The Haas machining centers were chosen for their speed and ease of use after looking at other machining centers. “We are self-directed teams here, so the guys who run the machines helped picked them out, rather than a manager up in an office choosing the machines,” Pritchett says.

Another key selling point, Pritchett adds, was the level of service. With other machining centers, the model shop has had problems getting service, but the downtime on the Haas machines has been minimal. “When we’ve had a problem,” he explains, “there is a service guy from Haas here to fix it the next day.” Service is provided by the Haas Factory Outlet in Philadelphia, which has a fleet of vans stocked with replacement parts in order to respond quickly to any repair needs

With Black & Decker creating larger products, such as generators and compressors, Pritchett says the model shop will probably need to expand its capabilities further. He already has his sights on a bigger machine. “I hope in the future that we will be getting a larger Haas,” he said.

So when you’re looking to buy a new tool from DeWALT or Black & Decker, you now know that tool probably began as a prototype on a Haas machine.