Hardware Going High-Tech

Niche products are gaining mainstream appeal
By Christina Lewellen
March 15, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE | Materials & Components

We don’t have to get up off the couch to change channels anymore, very few of us actually slide a key in the lock to open a car door and maps rest neatly in the glove box thanks to the GPS on the dash. This push-of-a-button mentality is making its way into window and door hardware, too, as suppliers introduce high-tech products aimed to make life simpler.

These products aren’t just for gadget junkies. Skylights that open with an operator as intuitive as a light switch, deadbolts that scan your fingerprint to let you in the front door and wireless clicker/intercom units that allow you to let the package delivery professional in your entryway when you’re out back gardening are convenience solutions that are gaining momentum with busy families, retirees and plenty of folks in between. “The adoption of new technologies by consumers makes this a very dynamic time for safety and security products,” says Scott DeBaldo, manager of innovation and new ventures for Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, producer of Schlage hardware lines. “As a company, we are focusing on delivering innovative solutions that resonate with the consumer.”
Kwikset's Smartscan combines fingerprint reading technology with the look and function of a traditional deadbolt.

While many of these high-tech products reside in the “early adopter” phase, hardware suppliers to both the OEM residential window and door market as well as the after-market retail channel say more and more consumers are willing to dig a bit deeper in the pockets for the premium features. “People aren’t just buying the cheapest thing they can anymore,” says Amber Grayson, sales and marketing director for Amesbury Locca. “They’re done with it. As far as the pricing and value of this type of product, it’s something that will stay with the home forever. It’s definitely a value-add, especially with the current downturn in the market.”

In many ways, Europe is leading the high-tech hardware revolution with automatic window and sliding door operators prominent at tradeshows and in the marketplace. But demand is certainly growing on this side of the ocean, notes Dan Gray, national sales manager for Roto Frank of America. “There is a growing trend, more so in Europe, to incorporate electronics into window and door components,” he says. “As we know, skylights and ceiling fans can be operated at the flip of a switch or a push of a button. Consumers are more technically-savvy today, and are receptive to keyless entry for entryway doors, and remote control functionality of windows. We at Roto envision a growing availability of new products to satisfy the techie consumer segment.”

High-tech hardware impressed the judges involved with Window & Door’s 2007 Crystal Achievement Awards. A relatively unknown company, Electronic Window Systems of Marshfield, Mass., won the award for most innovative window component for its Smart Window System. The system is an electronic operator for double hung windows that hides in the balance system and allows users to open the sash by pushing a button or pointing at the window with a remote control. The owner and founder of the company, Tim Mullen, says he began designing the hardware about 15 years ago when a customer building a nursing home asked him if there was a way to get a window to open by pushing a button. “I went back to my shop and started creating different samples and designs,” he says.

Today, Mullen’s system has evolved to the point where all of the windows can be controlled from a laptop and a safety slip clutch will immediately stop the window if a child or pet gets in the way. While the hardware was originally designed to assist the elderly—and that segment of the market continues to be a strong customer base—Smart Window System is also gaining popularity among parents who want to limit how far upper-story windows can open to prevent children falling from openings and energy-conscious consumers who want to regulate inside temperatures by automating the hours of the day the windows are open and closed. “For the amount of money people pay for their homes today, there’s no reason for the homes not to work for them,” Mullen says.

This month, Truth Hardware launches its motorized opening system for windows and skylights, the Marvel Power Operator. The company expects that it, too, will have traction among homeowners who are looking for ways to control their energy consumption, says Doug Johnson, vice president of new business development. “I hate to use the word ‘green’ lightly, but I think there are energy implications to having a motorized skylight,” he says. “In Arizona, for example, you have wonderful cool nights but warm days. This allows you to easily suck in cool air at night and then button up the home in the sunny, hot part of the day.”

The hardware supplier is working with manufacturers to push this type of automation out into the skylight and window market. “We want to grow the ability of skylight manufacturers to sell more electric skylights,” Johnson says. “It’s the type of gadget that’ll be the first thing a homeowner shows off when everybody comes over to look at the remodeling job.”

In doors, high-tech often means connecting convenience with security—allowing easy entry for those who are allowed but making it more difficult for those who aren’t. Amesbury Locca will focus this year on making the push with its wireless access control products, which work like a clicker for a car door. “It’s a remote control to unlock my front door,” explains Grayson. “It means I don’t have to carry a key. I have one for my home, office, conference room, workout facility—one clicker for everything.”

Amesbury got involved about a year ago with the high-tech Locca platform, which was developed in England. The company did a lot of research to “see if this is something that America was ready for,” Grayson explains, and determined that there’s particular interest among the aging-in-place audience. “People have to stay at their homes longer, if just for financial reasons,” she says. “With the obvious downturn in the housing market, it is likely that people will spend more money renovating and upgrading their existing homes, rather than trying to secure a loan for a new one.” This means that homeowners will look for affordable upgrade options geared toward ease of living, she adds.

The hardware company also provides a wireless intercom system, Locca Connecta, which works like a traditional intercom but has the added tie-in with the entry system to allow the user to unlock the door remotely. “You can ‘answer’ the door from wherever you are,” Grayson explains, a nice benefit for those who can’t get around easily due to age or disabilities.

The Locca products can be retrofitted on existing doors and has a plug-and-play installation system that is better suited for a locksmith than an electrician. The product is available through retailers and distributors, but the company is targeting manufacturers seeking differentiation as well. “We’re hoping that this is an upgrade manufacturers can add to their doors,” she says. “There are not a lot of producers bringing out new products because of the state of the industry but this is something that they can simply add onto their existing door systems as an upgrade without changing a lot, and add some nice profits.”

Another high-tech hardware item taking honors as a Crystal Achievement Award winner last year is Kwikset’s SmartScan residential biometric entry system. This deadbolt is the stuff that James Bond movies are made of—the system reads the sub-dermal fingerprint patterns located beneath the outer surface layer of the skin to allow 50 or more users to gain entry. But unlike commercial biometric systems currently on the market, SmartScan looks a lot like a traditional deadbolt. “Our product is really the only biometric deadbolt that can be found in retail stores like the Home Depot,” explains Krista Elliot, assistant product manager for Kwikset/Weiser’s mid-price point products. “It’s something that’s getting a lot of buzz. It’s very interesting for a lot of people. The market for keyless entry has grown in the last two years, and we’re positioned to catch that growth.”

While SmartScan hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet, it is catching the attention of homeowners who are seeking a more sophisticated way to manage who has access to their homes, says Jason Williams, senior product manager for Kwikset/Weiser’s mid-price point products. “I think right now it is more of a niche play,” he says. “The early adopters are looking for the next gadget and cool thing they can have in their homes.”

A gadget’s coolness factor only goes so far with buyers if the product’s functionality isn’t taken to the next level as well, suppliers say. Some consumers question the security of moving away from the familiarity of putting a key in a lock. “It took about five years for everybody to go to having a car with keyless entry,” Grayson points out. “Today, you can’t even buy a car without a remote unless you want to pay extra to have it withheld. It may take a few years for people to be okay with [keyless entry for their homes], just like with cars, but eventually it’s going to be a really big selling feature.”

The same security questions come with the fingerprint reading technology as well, Williams says. “People like the idea but they are a little concerned,” he says. “Our biometric device is very secure. It does have a back-up keyway for those people who are interested. You can always access your house with a regular key if you need backup.”
Buyers may also find themselves hung up on the premium prices that often come with recently-developed technologies. Some hardware suppliers are developing advanced products, but making sure the innovation stays in line with what customers are willing to pay. “As a company, we need to assess the market’s ability to pay higher prices for new features,” Ingersoll Rand’s DeBaldo says. “Price elasticities do exist, and we want to be a supplier to the mass market and not develop niche, high-priced technological marvels with little customer pull-through.”

Therefore, part of the company’s game plan with the Schlage line is to evolve new products from existing mechanical platforms and make sure that the price point and the level of technology is something that has broad appeal. “These products are creating significant customer pull-through,” says DeBaldo of Schlage’s KeyPad Lever and Deadbolt, which allows users to punch a series of numbers on a keypad to disengage the lock. “They address the need of convenience and flexibility with the customer. Based on their delivered value and price point in the market they are sold into various applications across several customer segments.”

Most manufacturers add that thanks to good designs, innovative manufacturing techniques and even some overseas sourcing, high-tech hardware isn’t nearly as expensive as consumers, or even window and door manufacturers, might expect it to be. That makes the “sell” less about the price and more about the marketing. “It’s not as expensive as you would imagine,” Mullen says of his electronic operating system.

“If things go right, it could be cheaper than a storm door and also easier to install.”

Truth’s Johnson agrees that the meat to this high-tech trend lies in getting the value-added message to manufacturers and consumers. “I definitely see a trend here,” he says. “Part of what makes it interesting is the marketing challenge.”