Technology opens new pathways to growth for Master Lock


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Master Lock Co.

Oak Creek

Innovation: Bluetooth padlocks

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Have you ever found yourself staring down at a padlock, having completely forgotten the combination?

Maybe you’ve misplaced the keys to a lock or shared the code with one too many people, and now whatever the lock was guarding is missing.

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Oak Creek-based Master Lock Co. believes its Bluetooth enabled padlock can solve many of these problems, while also transitioning the company into the digital age.

“What we’re focused on is what is the value proposition to the end user or the consumer; how is it going to enhance or improve what they do today,” said Mike Bauer, president of Master Lock.

With the Bluetooth padlock, the value comes from the ability to have remote access and to not need a key or combination. Combining it with a smartphone app allows an owner to give access to others, know when a lock is opened and have a record of the last person to open the lock. With the extra value comes an extra price. The indoor version of the Bluetooth lock has a list price of $70, almost 10 times the price of a traditional combination dial lock.

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“I call it an evolution. I don’t think it’s a revolution in our industry with the technology,” Bauer said. “Our core business is still mechanical padlocks. That is the majority of the company.”

He also doesn’t see the addition of Bluetooth impacting Master Lock’s manufacturing in Milwaukee. The technology is just activating a physical product, after all.

“There’s still a metal shackle; that shackle is still going to be made in Milwaukee. There’s parts of the lock body that will still be made in Milwaukee,” Bauer said.

At this point, Master Lock doesn’t have the volumes to justify producing the hardware portions of the technology itself, he said. There are segments of the market where remote access or an audit trail are attractive features and could continue to grow.

Mike Bauer explains the radio frequency blocking chamber Master Lock added to its new headquarters.
Mike Bauer explains the radio frequency blocking chamber Master Lock added to its new headquarters.

“I see that evolving; I don’t think we’re at a tipping point just yet,” he said.

The technology is at a point where Master Lock has transitioned from a company focused on mechanical engineering to one that incorporates software and electronics into its products. That transition, combined with ongoing growth and the acquisition of Sentry Safe, is what prompted Master Lock to move into a larger headquarters in Oak Creek.

Master Lock will hold an “unlocking” ceremony in the coming days for its new headquarters, once occupied by Midwest Airlines, Bucyrus and then Caterpillar. The company will move in with almost 400 employees, having added 142 positions since December 2015.

Many of the new positions have been added to support the growth of new technologies in the company.

“Obviously we have our brand safety and security expertise,” said Cris Smyczek, senior product manager, noting the company lacked expertise in the firmware and software development needed to make mechanical products into digital ones.

Bauer said the need for new talent extends into quality assurance, marketing and even legal support from parent company Fortune Home Brands & Security. He said patents and trademarks in the mechanical space are “a little more black and white.”

“As you get into the software space, there’s a little bit more interpretation involved,” Bauer said.

The development of the Bluetooth padlock was several years in the making. It started in 2014 with extensive consumer research.

“We tried to identify what those universal pain points were for padlocks,” Smyczek said, with lost keys and forgotten combinations among the culprits. Research also quickly led to the need for indoor and outdoor models.

Smyczek also said it was important to start with the idea that the security for electronic locks needed to be as robust as traditional padlocks. To achieve that, the company went with military-grade authentication and encryption.

The physical Bluetooth locks are still on their first generation of production, but the company is able to update the software in the app regularly. Smyczek said other forms of the technology are in the works, including a potential lock box that could work in real estate settings.

“As we continue to evolve the platform, all of these products will work within one app,” she said.

Bauer noted that the Master Lock brand is one customers could first interact with in middle school and continue to use for the rest of their lives, but Smyczek added that having an app through which to connect with consumers makes for a cultural shift within the company.

“It’s a significant cultural shift because we now have a relationship with the end-user of our product for a longer period of time,” she said.

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