Movember: The brains behind the Braun
We're just past mid-point of the annual sponsored facial fuzz-a-thon Movember, and all those who are taking part are now no doubt scritching and a-scratching and dreaming of the moment they can whip the hairy caterpillars off their faces. So, there's no better time to look at male grooming products and, specifically, shaving technology. Plus, let's face it, who of the male gender hasn't wanted or been given a shaver for Christmas before?
That's why Pocket-lint travelled to Kronberg in Germany, the home of Braun.
Although the company happily dabbles in other electronic bathroom products, including powered toothbrushes, and has a long and distinguished history in AV equipment, it is possibly best known for its foil shavers - a fact reinforced by a quick visit to the Braun Collection museum.
Inside the company's archive of products, which is open to the public, there's currently a display of every generation of Braun shaver, from 1950 to the Series 7 of modern day. And, it's interesting to note that things haven't changed too dramatically.
Yeah, there's less of a reliance on beige these days, and modern shavers are more phallic than the bricks of the 70s, but they still operate on the same principle: to give the closest and most comfortable (dry) shave possible.
The line-up also gives up another interesting nugget of information: Unlike mp3 players, mobile phones, iPads, and a host of the other technological toys that we pepper our lives with, a new Braun shaver doesn't come around once a year. It can take several years for a range to be replaced. The company constantly strives for perfection, yet will only release a new product when it's good and ready, and is a distinct improvement over the last.
In the meantime, it makes adjustments and tweaks to the product line already available:
"We have a kind of rhythm", says Dirk Freund, head of Research and Development. "We say ok, in a certain amount of years we want a new platform. So, in between, we go at regular intervals with upgrades. Basically, we've set the foundation for that platform's introduction, and then we build on it - add things of relevance, increase the basic properties of the platform in a meaningful way".
"This rhythm we have; if you look in the past, the Syncro platform was launched in 1999, and today's Series 7 platform was launched in 2006, so it's a six to seven year kind of thing".
"That's proven to be the best business approach. If you do it every year, it's just too much".
The company's head of Corporate Design, Oliver Grabes, agrees: "In between these cycles of bringing out a completely new shaver, there are steps in which we update the design in terms of colour and trends".
"Obviously", he says. "Six years is a fairly long time for the design side. Look at what car companies do; they don't reinvent the car every year."
Certainly, a tour of the Braun factory gives some clues as to why the process takes so long. There are so many departments, each with a seemingly minor but majorly important task to perform.
For example, Braun has a fully equipped audio testing lab, a sound design studio with its own anechoic chamber. The sound proof room has been lined with specially treated foam to prevent any sound from reverberating or rebounding from the walls. Indeed, standing inside with the door closed is a particularly odd and uncomfortable experience as the walls absorb your voice.
Its main purpose is to find any rattles or audio spikes within daily operation of the company's products, and isolate their position to the exact point of occurrence.
However, another, weirder task for this department is to get the sound of a product just right. If a shaver, toothbrush or hairdryer doesn't sound the way people expect it to, they might think it isn't powerful enough and, therefore, not fit for purpose. The sound engineer will sometimes have to make recommendations on pitch and volume, and suggest increasing them. While it might be possible to dampen the ambient audio, it may be the wrong thing to do for the end user.
The Quality Control Centre at the Kronberg site offers up another example of the fine tuning that goes into the build of just one product, and a good reason why it is unfeasible for a new shaver to hit the streets every year. For starters, it takes 1 to 2 years to perform an entire round of tests on one product.
Between 50 to 70 tests are completed on each shaver before it can be pronounced safe and of a high enough standard to meet consumer expectations. This includes the new process of running it through a custom built X-ray machine to look for interior flaws, an act that used to be done by slicing the product by hand, so would've taken even more time.
And, finally, there is Braun's Consumer Product Research Centre, with a swathe of expensive technology to photograph and analyse the faces of willing volunteers, before and after shaving. It is the results of this research that will help all future generations of foil shavers.
We were particularly impressed with the company's recently acquired 3D face-mapping tech and software. It takes several extremely high-resolution photos of a subject and converts them into a three-dimensional model. The lab rats can then zoom into areas to see where the shaver is performing best (or worst) and report the findings back to the engineers.
It is this data, and the gathering thereof that's the final step before the product goes into mass production. And it looks cool when you have it done yourself, as we found out.
These are just some examples of the numerous steps needed in the evolution of just one shaver. And they don't even include the extensive initial design phase or factory production.
Spending a day flitting between the Braun buildings in Kronberg is enough to convince us of the magnitude of the task in building a new shaving product line. And, do you know what? As it's our skin and faces that are at stake, take all the time you like Braun. All the time you like.
The Braun Series 7-790cc, the company's top of the line model with its Clean&Renew system and recharge dock, has been discounted in the run up to Christmas. It's available at a recommended retail price of £199 until 24 December 2010, after which time it'll go back to £299.