Needs Analyses should follow every purchasing request
Part of a sourcing department's job is to analyze requirements and look for leverage points. It's a need/want analysis - do we need this? does it have to be that? etc. When looking over a product's qualifications or criteria prior to sourcing or purchasing it, it can be easy to disparage them or try and disregard them.

"Who needs a tolerance that small?

"It doesn't have to be made from this specific, does it?"

"Who cares how big or small it is. It's an ink pen!"

And with that, let's turn our attention to the standard government ballpoint pen. This 2010 article from the Washington Post talks about some of the folklore behind the pen's specifications, but aside from the folklore, the actual specifications of the pen's manufacture are fantastic on their own. A six page document, available for download here, breaks down the specifications of a government-issue ballpoint pen. Among the specs for your standard retractable ballpoint pen:

  • two part barrel with a contoured grip
  • spring
  • pocket clip
  • 0.7mm ball, with a .05mm tolerance
  • 13.8cm overall length, with a 2mm tolerance
  • pocket clip that acts as locking/retracting device
  • ink cartridge filled with water-based ink, sealed to avoid ink loss in liquid or vapor form
  • ability to write continuously for 1000m with less than 1% errant inkflow
  • ability to write immediately after being left "open" for 24 hours
  • ability to write within 10 seconds of being exposed to temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit and -5 degrees Fahrenheit
The folklore behind these standards is where it gets really interesting. From the Washington Post article, and depending on who you believe, these standards came about because:

  • The pen needed to fit undetectably in a pressed military uniform
  • It needed to be usable as an emergency replacement for a 2" fuse
  • It needed to be usable in emergency tracheotomies (!)
  • It's length was determined by the scale of naval maps, allowing navigators to quickly measure 150 nautical miles
Whether these requirements are myth or truth, the fact remains that the government needed a cheaply-made pen that could hold up in a variety of situations and circumstances - from marking maps in the battlefields of Europe (the original standards were developed during the Depression, between two world wars) to filling out forms in a rural post office. Given the wide range of places the pen would go, tight tolerances were a necessity to ensure performance.A store bought pen might work fine in the office, but on the deck of a ship on the Atlantic, the sea air may corrode it overnight. A retracting point may be overkill for a solider whose uniform was meant to be dirty, but a beancounter in the IRS doesn't want ink on his dry cleaned dress shirt.

Within your own company, the standards may be a bit more lax...
 "What kind of pens you need, Chuck? Uhhhh... blue ones. With a comfy grip. And they should look cool! None of that white-barrel crap, get me some Zebras."
...and you'll likely be buying in such small quantities you can't demand your own model from a manufacturer. But requirements should still be considered.

An ink pen may not be just an ink pen. Consider each department's requirements before disregarding them and just ordering a gross of blue Bic sticks to be distributed across the facility. If they don't have requirements, maybe its worth having them look at their usage and generating some. Are they writing in unique conditions? Are they customer-facing and losing a lot of pens? Are they writing on a unique surface that requires a specific type of ink?

While your interns definitely do not need Mont Blancs, no matter how many times they ask, Accounting may actually need retractables over capped, and manufacturing may actually need a gel-inked pen with a bit more durability in the case design. Determining who needs what can help consolidate purchases to save money, but can also help keep unique items purchased under agreements going to the write - sorry, right - departments to avoid wastage due to non-use and maverick spending to buy what they like.
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Nicholas Hamner

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