Unplugged: Cordless tool trends
When working on a job that demands movability and reach, a cord can hinder productivity.
When working on a job that demands movability and reach, a cord can hinder productivity. When a contractor can use a cordless tool instead, he becomes independent of power sources on the jobsite. Cordless technology eliminates extension cords, which can create a trip hazard on a busy jobsite. For all these reasons, having cordless tools provides a great advantage. No longer a niche industry, the ever-expanding category continues to grow.
“Initially, contractors viewed cordless tools as a niche solution for some lighter duty applications, as tools did not have acceptable reach or power to replace corded tools,” says Aaron Brading, business unit manager of power tools for Hilti North America. “Cordless tools have been popular in general since the early 2000s. Since at least 2011, the industry has seen the number of cordless tools sold grow while the sales of corded tools is shrinking. My perception is that cordless tools will be the fastest growing segment of power tools, at least through the next five years.”
Shane Moll, president of the power tools division at Milwaukee Tool, agrees that the cordless tool market shows no sign of slowing down. As in many markets, customers are looking for a tool that is smaller, lighter, faster and longer-lasting. To fit these needs, manufacturers are looking to upgrade the battery and tool at the same time.
“We always look to see what we can do to make them lighter and smaller,” says Marcus Borman, global marketing manager at RIDGID. “One of the major changes in the past 10 years has been the switch to lithium-ion.”
The earlier generations of cordless tools did not have acceptable reach or performance for many commercial and industrial applications, Brading explains. As battery cell technology transitioned to lithium-ion, manufacturers are able to push tools further in performance and reach.
Ever since Milwaukee Tool introduced its lithium-ion battery to the market in 2005, it has caused a fundamental shift in cordless tool technology, Moll says. “Lithium-ion has allowed manufacturers to pack a massive amount of power and performance into a compact structure,” he adds. “Tools have gotten smaller and lighter, and, at the same time, outperform their predecessors.”
Makita also introduced its 18V lithium-ion category in 2005. “The market reaction was positive,” says Wayne Hart, communications manager for Makita. “The Makita 18-volt lithium-ion battery gave contractors a great power-to-weight ratio and faster charge times than old technology such as nickel-metal hydride and nickel cadmium.”
The power plant
As power tool manufacturers continue to embrace the innovation lithium-ion can provide, more power tools continue to be launched on various battery platforms. “For users, the ability to work off of one battery platform has become a ‘must-have’ so they don’t have to continually buy into new lines of tools in order to get the performance and reliability they need to do their jobs,” Moll says. “It is important for the customer to have a system of power tools which gives them the ability to use their batteries across a broad range of power tools.”
Purchasing a cordless tool is an investment in a battery platform, Hart agrees. “For contractors, breadth of line and battery compatibility are clear ‘must-haves’ when investing in cordless tools,” he notes.
Professional users expect manufacturers to provide tools using the same battery interface and an acceptable run time, Brading adds. “Without these two elements, cordless tools lose some of their value to contractors because batteries have to be changed too frequently or the expense of batteries cannot be spread across multiple tool bodies,” he says.
However, a tool’s performance is determined by more than just batteries, Moll adds. The motor and electronics infrastructure are also key factors that can offer a tool increased run-time and performance.
Another clear trend is the demand for increased battery efficiency. A slow-charging battery can mean wasted time on the jobsite. New technology means faster charge times and increased productivity.
“Select cordless tools are able to be powered by two 18-volt batteries for increased power and run time,” Hart says. “In addition, advanced batteries are equipped with protection features that extend the life of the battery, the power plant of a cordless tool line-up. New technology protects batteries from overload, over-discharge and overheating for longer tool and battery life.”
As technology advances, not only are manufacturers upgrading cells, they are also working on drive efficiency. “In 2006, a reciprocating saw struggled to perform applications in an acceptable manner for a commercial contractor,” Brading says. “Today, cordless drives are at a stage where we can not only successfully deliver a preferred reciprocating saw, but reach further into concrete drilling and chipping. This is done by ensuring the most efficient drives are in tools such as brushless motors or other high productivity drives.”
As the audience using cordless tools broadens and the duration of use lengthens, contractors are looking for tools to be lighter and more compact.
“The light weight enables contractors to use the tools for longer periods, making them more productive, while the compactness allows them to get in tighter spaces,” Brading says. “To gain better ergonomics, manufacturers are making tools smaller, or even moving tools to smaller voltage platforms like 12 volt.”
Hart agrees that ergonomics is a very important difference in tools. He notes that older battery technology was contained in a stem-style battery pack that extended into the handle, so engineers were forced to design the tool’s handle around the battery.
“Slide-style batteries had no stem and this allowed Makita engineers to design the power tool handle around the human hand for superior fit, ergonomics and comfort,” Hart adds. “For pro contractors using tools all day every day, this is an important difference over old and obsolete battery technology.”
Borman sees weight and quality as a necessity for cordless tools. “We are always working on getting the lightest tool out to market, with the highest quality,” he says. “Our largest tool with a battery — that can make connections on 1/2-inch to 4-inch copper — weighs 8 1/2 pounds. Fifteen years ago, the tool was almost double that weight. We also understand that contractors are judged on their quality, and if the tools they use are low quality, it will hurt their business. Once you lose quality, you lose customers for good.”
Another need in the market is customization options. “Users want to interact with their tools in numerous ways,” Moll says. “One-Key is a digital platform for tools and equipment. By integrating tool electronics with a custom-built, cloud-based program, it will provide control and access to information that will revolutionize the way work gets done — and fundamentally change the way users interact with their tools.”
Beyond these aspects of the tool, RIDGID is always keeping up with trends in the construction, remodeling and maintenance markets. “We keep our fingers on the pulse of the market to see what materials (copper, PEX, stainless steel, etc.) are being used, where they are being used, as well as how,” Borman says. “This allows us to not only design tools that are smaller, lighter, faster and longer-lasting, but it also helps us design specific features or technologies to better serve customers working in an ever-changing marketplace.”
Collaboration with contractor customers is important to the creation of tool solutions.
“We believe in a collaborative process when it comes to addressing jobsite challenges and creating innovative solutions to fit those needs,” Moll says. “From our salesforce to our product managers, we believe in going out into the field to speak with the people whose opinions matter to us most: our core users. The knowledge we get while out on the jobsite is invaluable to how we help our users.”
Milwaukee Tool also works with trade-training facilities throughout the country, he adds.
The contractor will always be the driver of the technology manufacturers bring to market, Brading says.
“As a manufacturer that sells directly to professional end users, we get feedback directly from the customer’s mouth and implement it into our development,” he explains. “We offer customers a ‘no cost’ period of two years on all elements of the cordless system: tools, batteries and chargers. Normal wear and tear is covered. We also cover shipping, parts and labor. Tools are typically back to the customer in four days.”
For Hilti, one of the benefits of having direct ties to contractors is that its salespeople teach training sessions across North America every day. These can be done at the customer’s site or Hilti’s Customer Experience Center in Irving, Texas.
RIDGID also offers comprehensive training on all its products. At its company headquarters in Elyria, Ohio, an entire building is dedicated to training contractors, distributors and its own workforce. As a global company, it also offers training all over the world. Its international training centers are located in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Romania, Turkey, Australia, China and the Philippines.
The cordless tool industry is going to continue to grow and expand in every market, Borman predicts. “Once someone launches a technology, that company and their competitors work diligently to improve upon the previous design,” he says. “Features that are a new innovation one year may become the standard two or three years later.”