Monday, June 6, 2016

Iteration v. Innovation

It occurred to me recently that you can look at the major knife manufacturers in one of two ways--those that iterate and those that innovate.  This is a gross simplification, of course, and really a spectrum (the new version of the Axis lock is clearly an innovation in that it is new, but it is not really that different from the old Axis lock), but put those things aside and look through this particular lens with me for a moment.

On the side of iteration we have two companies--Benchmade and Spyderco.  These two companies have a core set of design ideas and they use them over and over again on their knives.  For Benchmade it is a lock and for Spyderco it is a deployment method.  On the other side, innovation, we have Kershaw and CRKT.  They produce dozens of new designs every year with little to no continuity with the past.  We may get a new steel in an old design, but very rarely do these companies revisit a design (the M16 from CRKT being a notable exception).  

So, using this lens, and recognizing that it is a warped and limited perspective (I happen to think Spyderco is quite inventive with their designs), which produces better knives?  

I think you have to favor iteration on a per knife basis.  Sure, Kershaw with their 40 new designs a year is bound to hit on some of them and get something in the 17 or 18 out of 20 range, but for those gleaming jewels of design and implementation it takes practice.  Just browse through the Spyderco catalog and look at their evergreen products--the Delica, the Endura, the Centofante III, the Dragonfly, the Native 5, the Paramilitary II...all of them are amazing knives, well above average.  Now compare that to the Kershaw catalog where you have a lot of good, but not great knives.  Those knives in the Kershaw line up that have been allowed to evolve, such as the Cryo, have become very good blades indeed.  The G10 Cryo is leagues better than the slippery turd that is the stainless steel version.


Similarly, the G10 Zing, a Big Box exclusive, is amazing.  But among these select few, Kershaw pumps out virtually interchangeable designs with a few tweaks.  Can you, without looking, tell me the difference between the Showtime and the Entropy or the Rove and the Grid?  

But this is not the only way to look at knives.  If a businessman was speaking, he'd tell you that the "fast fail" is the way to go.  In this way knife companies are imitating a high tech start up--they make a bunch of stuff, send it out in the market, and see what sticks, and then iterate on that.  The market is the testing group.  This has two advantages--one obvious and one not so obvious.  First, the test group is massive, allowing for kinks in a design to be found faster and more effectively.  I am sure Kershaw does internal QC testing, don't get me wrong, but a lot of the "is this a good product" testing comes from us.  Second, you get to charge folks to be part of your test group.  Instead of doing a lot of internal testing and weeding out lesser designs, Kershaw sends out 40 new knives a year, some fail and some don't, but everyone that wants to test one out to see if they like it, has to buy one.  Folks that read this blog aren't "one knife" people.  They recognize that they will do a lot of catch and release in the process of building a stable of blades they like and can rely on.  Kershaw feeds this impulse by making a metric ton of new stuff every year. 

CRKT does this too, but more with mechanisms and locks than Kershaw does.  CRKT releases at least two or three new systems a year, whether it is deployment mechanisms or locks.  It's clockwork.  The Homefront, just announced at Blade, has a toolless tear down system.  Personally, I find this innovation more interesting than two dozen flippers that have different colors and blade shapes, but it is more risky from a business perspective. While Kershaw is grooving in one pitch after another into basically the same part of the strike zone, thus guaranteeing a modicum of sales success, CRKT is throwing pitches all over the place. Consumers, like batters, are potentially thrown off balance.  Great stuff, like the Eraser, can slip buy in a flurry of new acronyms.  

But this debate has focused on folks that are, while caricatured for purposes of this article, in the middle of the spectrum--Spyderco is pretty innovative and CRKT has enough variants of the M16 to show they like iteration.  At the extreme tail end, we have the moribund corpses of iteration and five year old with ADHD of innovation.

Chris Reeve represents the most extreme of the iteration model.  At Blade 2016, they just announced the Large Inkosi.  I had parodied this a few posts ago, saying they were working on a new, slightly different sized Inkosi called the Iripzuoff, and guess what, it turned out to be true.  Let's walk through this.  First, they made the Sebenza, large and small.  Then they made the 21, in both sizes.


Then they made the 25, only as a large.  Then they made the Inkosi.  Now we have the Large Inkosi.  There are three blade shapes for the Sebenza--a clip point, a wharncliffe-ish thing, and a tanto.  The handle comes in carbon fiber and titanium (let's ignore the inlay version for now). That's  roughly eleven different versions of almost the exact same knife.  Iteration in overdrive.

Then there is a company like Custom Knife Factory.  They basically make production versions of custom knives and as a result, each knife is pretty much entirely different from every other knife.  And some of these designs have a lot of promise.  I liked the Peace Duke, for example, but the actual blade grind, with its silly multiple grinds (all but useless on a knife this size) killed the design for me.  If CKF iterated (and they do sometimes, rarely) they could tweak this design and make it something more practical.  They remind me of the dogs from Up, just one second away from losing their attention and looking at something else, except instead of squirrels, they are smitten with titanium framelock flippers.  "Flipper!"

From a business standpoint, the Kershaw model of innovation and consumer-based product testing, is probably the best way to go.  It generate a ton of revenue, feeds the knife addiction, and, in the rare instance when one blade rises to the top, it gives you clear direction on which knife and how to iterate. But from a consumer perspective, I'd much rather the Spyderco path of iteration.  I'd lump Benchmade in here too, but they are perhaps too far over on the spectrum, closer to Chris Reeve than Spyderco.  Over a long process of distilling good design and listening to consumer feedback you arrive a gems, polished by years of iteration.  The Dragonfly 2 is one of these gems.  The new G10 Mini Grip, the 555-1 is another.


Each is a truly sublime blade, something that even the best designers are unlike to stumble upon in their first go round.  It may be slow, it may result in a boring line up (I'm look at you Benchmade), but the end results are some of the finest folding knives in the world.  


  1. This is making me pumped for the review of the 555-1!

  2. I spoke to a CRK guy at Blade. He said they were replacing the 25 with the Inkosi; that's why it wasn't a "Small 25" in the first place, and the new Large Inkosi replaces the Large 25 outright.
    I handled both Inkosis, and they feel just as incredible and solid as any other CRK I've ever handled.

    1. I am sure they are really great knives. CRK does nothing poorly. I am just not sure why we need another titanium framelock of this type from Chris Reeve. Admit it, you'd be more excited if he were releasing a flipper design?

    2. The guy told me that they called the 25 a Sebenza because that's the name for which CRK is known and it was more about marketing. With the changes compared to the 21, it's really a new model, and they're basically updating the name to reflect that. There are some very small differences between the 25 and the Large Inkosi, but not enough to be super significant. He also mentioned that they'll pretty much always make the Sebenza 21. So you'll have the evergreen 21 family, and they probably won't ever change much on those if any going forward. Then you have the Inkosi family, and I'd bet that will be where the updates and changes happen. To me it makes sense; I know a lot of people didn't like the changes in the 25 as a Sebenza, and now it won't be a Sebenza anymore to complain about. They can update the Inkosi all they want without people yelling about them ruining the Sebenza.

      All that said, yes, I would have been more excited if they'd released a flipper. However, if/when they do, I'd bet they'll call it an Inkosi variant or a whole new name, and not Sebenza.

    3. Large and Small Sebenzas. Then they made the 25 which is... a different large Sebenza. Then they made a small version of the weird, large Sebenza. Now they're selling a small version of the large, weird Sebenza. Finally, made a small version of the large, weird Sebenza.


      Sounds like some fuckery and like they don't have a clear idea of what their product road map is.

  3. Heh, sounds like the knife industry is autistic at one end and ADHD at the other. I would put Boker right now at the 5 year old ADHD end of the spectrum. The amount of junk knives they are spewing out in 440b steel under their magnum line is staggering. Schrade are also a lot like it with their folders. I think it reduces the prestige of the company which then lowers engagement from the knife addict community. What I don't know, is whether they even care about the knife addict community - maybe their dozens of knives rake it in on fathers day and christmas time with casuals to keep their EDC knife wing viable.

    As dull as Benchmade often are are, or how rapidly spyderhole fatigue develops, theres still a palpable sense of excitement when they announce knives. This is earned by walking mid-spectrum and making clever choices, rather than being one or the other.

    Great read at any rate. I've just got the new mini-grip myself. Crazy what a different type of plastic can do for the knife. Yet to see the benefits of the new steel (simply haven't put many feet of cardboard against the edge yet).

    1. I think with Boker you have to distinguish between their product lines. You can basically ignore anything in the Magnum line - they're not even trying to appeal to enthusiasts with those designs, they're just being pumped out for the people who don't care about steel or quality, and just want something pointy. Their Plus line, on the other hand, seems right in line with the other enthusiast companies, putting out knives with good steels and well-known designers.

  4. I thought Chris Reeve had models other than the Sebenza, one with a rather unique lock on it. The Mnandi is very different from the Sebenza which is different from the Umnuzzman (sp?!) which are all very different from his fixed blades. The design of the Sebenza worked and apparently its designer only felt it needed minor modifications; if something isn't broken why try to fix it? Had he come up with a radically different knife for the 25/Inkosi I'm sure people would be just as upset.

    While I'm defending CRK in this comment thus risking the label of fanboy, I think it's a mistake to try to fit most companies into your binary view of knife companies. I think this is what necessitated a reductionist view of CRK to fit into this paradigm. Also, if the 25/Inkosi is a stagnant design perhaps it's due to Chris's semi-retired status.

    1. CRK does have other models. The point I was trying to make was simply that a lot of his knives have the same basic design. The Umnumzaan, the Sebenza 21, and the Inkosi are all basically the same knife with a few tweaks, milling, and size differences. Imagine if all Spyderdo had were the Delica and Endura and their variants.

      The Mnandi IS truly different, but that design was released years ago at this point.

      The TiLock was a design by the Hawks that Chris Reeve makes.

      I agree that there is no need to fix what's not broken, but releasing the 25 and then the Inkosi and the Large Inkosi all in the span of a few years seems more like an easy money grab than sticking with greatness.

      I agree that these binary categories create a false dichotomy, which is why I said that at the start of the article. The dichotomy, however, does give us a useful lense to look through when evaluating companies and their design decisions.

  5. What is that beautiful torch pictured with the Inkosi?

    1. You are forgiven for thinking it is an Inkosi. It is actually a Small Sebenza 21 which is basically the same thing. The torch is a McGizmo Haiku.

    2. Oops, sorry. Thanks for the info. Must buy now...

  6. Anthony,

    You bastard! How DARE you say such filth about my beloved Inkosi! Just kidding, in all honesty I see why CRK does what it does. There knives just work. I was never a hardcore CRK fan before the Inkosi, I always thought the PM2 was a much better cutting tool than the 21. I for one am glad they released the Large Inkosi. The 2 things that stopped me from having a permanent 25 in the collection was the stupid lanyard pin that had to be put EXACTLY the same place when you reassemble and the pocket clip hot spot. The Large Inkosi fixes all this and dare I say makes it a better knife that the 21 (especially with that ceramic ball grove milled into the tang). But I know you will change your tune once you get a small Inkosi.

    1. I think it is possible to LOVE the knives that come out of crk and still be disappointed in the company. They have been around for over 20 years and they have something like 4 original designs and 20 employees. I'm not saying they should have morphed into Kai or Gerber, but if they weren't so extremely risk averse, they could at least have grown into a second spyderco, or maybe spyderco light.

      Without speculating too much on how much of this is due to certain elements of Reeve's personalty, I think it is fair to say the company has made a conscious decision to play it safe every step of the way. This is disappointing because it seems on the surface that such a talented group should be capable of so much more.

    2. Honestly, I don't think CRK wants to become "Spyderco Lite". They seem to be perfectly happy providing a decent living for 20 employees in Idaho by making some of the world's best production knives. They personify the adage "Quality over quantity". That seems to be their focus.

      I own 8 CRK knives, so I guess you could call me a fanboy, but regardless of how many Spyderco / Benchmade / ZT / Kershaw blades pass through my house, I always go back to EDC'ing a CRK.

      I enjoy a flipper sometimes just as much as the next guy, but something about the blasted titanium scales, thumb stud, smooth action, and solid lockup keeps bringing me back time after time. There's just nothing else like it.

      All of CRK's knives are great. Perfection is debatable, but in my eyes they're pretty close. Small improvements and innovations - like the ceramic ball detent / lock bar contact, larger pivot and smoother washers are just icing on the cake.