Old Technology, Stale Designs, Part Two

An editorial by Paul Mazan.

During a SHOT Show long ago, a rep from an American shotgun maker asked me what they were missing in the marketplace. I suggested a good double shotgun for Cowboy Action. His response, “What is ‘Cowboy Action’?” To a different company rep, I suggested they look into a lever gun that aped the 1892 Winchester on the outside but was updated internally. His response, “I think we’ll just let our friends at Marlin keep that market segment.” Back in 1986, an engineer for an after market trigger manufacturer asked for ideas and I told him the market was crying for triggers for the AR-15 and Japanese Arasaka. His response, “How would we do that?” I told him I wasn’t an engineer, just a guy listening to customer requests. Fifteen years later, under new ownership, the company finally introduced AR-15 and Arasaka triggers.

I was the lead on the development of baking lacquers and the aerosol epoxy finished for alloys that couldn’t be blued, and worked for many years trying to find someone that could make a spray-on, bake-on finish that looked like color case hardening and a cold parkerizing for touch up like the cold blues. For nearly two decades I worked as a New Product Manager for two companies and looked, begged and pleaded for an immersion bluing system that did not require heat and caustic salts to replace traditional hot salts bluing. I once again told them that I was an idea guy organizing requests from real customers, not a chemical engineer. I never did find anyone willing to take on the projects.

One of my favorite incidents was the Phantom scope and mount, proprietary units that wouldn’t work with other optics or mounts. At SHOT that year I visited their booth and a salesman mentioned dropping the mount. Naturally, I commented they must have dropped the scope, too. He scanned his computer print out and said, “No, we still offer the scope.” I asked why they would discontinue the necessary mount and the answer was a classic case of a company not knowing its own product line. The scope was profitable and the mount wasn’t, according to the P&L statement. Despite explaining this problem, I was told they still supplied other mounts. To nobody’s surprise the scope was discontinued the next year. Seems it was no longer profitable.

These product ideas were dreamed up by a low level guy with no formal education, namely me. You would think corporate guys with MBAs would fill the market with cutting edge products but they simply aren’t gun guys and have no understanding of their customer’s needs. One company I worked for did away with my position because they switched to a corporate strategy of acquisition rather than R&D. Instead of developing products customers were asking for, they simply bought young companies developing a good idea. Even corporations with people passionate about firearms find it more economical to let someone else develop ideas and buy them. The bottom line trumps innovation.

Read more in our July 2014 issue. Back issues are available.

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  1. Paul, the problems you are outlining are there in every corporation. I saw the same thing in the computer field. I led a team that put up the first remote support and eCommerce capability with all the underlying technology. We weren’t allowed to patent it. Had we been able to do so, you’d see something like remote diagnostic capability on all cars, tv’s, and a lot of other consumer products.

    One other thing that kills innovation was the idea that “we’ve never done it like that before”. I heard so much of that. I fortunately worked for a couple of guys that believed in innovation and would quietly fund these projects until we got them going. The problem was that once those were up and running, the corporate minions-of-darkness would swoop in and tell us the 100 reasons we couldn’t be allowed to continue.

    In one case, we did almost $3M in business and never walked into the shop but did it all with video conference, remote support, and targeted discussions with the client. Business results didn’t matter, the fact that we didn’t follow the “herd” did.

    • I can sure understand your frustration. Corporations shoot themselves in the foot so many times because they stifle innovation. I once had a really great lubricant that I spent four years trying to find the “Right Bottle” for. They wouldn’t let me kill the project because all our testing showed it was a superior product, wouldn’t let me buy a mold, and never found a commercially available bottle that was acceptable. In the end the product died because the technology was no longer “new”. There is also “Not invented here” and my favorite “Think out side of the box”. That one normally comes from someone that wouldn’t know the box if he was sealed in it. I remember trying to get the OK to have a part made in India. You would have thought I had passed gas in church! I got the manufacturer to guarantee it would meet our specs, pay the shipping, allow 100% inspection and pay the freight back on any that were not acceptable to us for any reason. None of that was acceptable because we “aren’t going to take the time to inspect every part”. That is just two and there are many many more.

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