Power tools, unleashed

The power tools aisle is a cornerstone in any hardware retailer’s selection—where brands like DeWalt, Porter-Cable, Milwaukee, Makita and Bosch compete for valuable shelf space.

Power tool innovation continues to drive the category toward more powerful, lighter, portable and ergonomic tools to appeal to contractors and weekend warriors alike, especially in cordless lines.

“Cordless is what’s driving the business right now. That’s where we see continual growth,” said Jeff Frazier, merchandise manager for power tools at Do it Best Corp.

Frazier said the biggest trend in cordless lines has been the move to 12V lithium-ion platforms over the traditional 18V nickel-cadmium lines.

“There’s still a market for the 18V, but I think especially when you’re looking at things like driving screws, some drilling, basic applications like that, that 12V platform meets the needs of that user,” he said. “I think one of the things that everybody’s looking for from a contractor’s stand-point is they want the power, but they like the light weight of the tool.”

Companies like Milwaukee are featuring 12V lithium-ion lines with more than 30 tools in the platform. The company said its M12 line of sub-compact lithium-ion tools using its Red Lithium battery packs are designed to deliver more work per charge and more work over the life of the battery than traditional lithium-ion tools.

“Sub-compact lithium has been the fastest-growing segment in cordless for the last three years, so naturally other manufacturers are now entering the space,” said Paul Fry, director of cordless product management for Milwaukee.

The M12 line features traditional drills and drivers, as well as PVC cutters, palm nailers and even grease guns. The line also is growing in another area of cordless tool development: test and measurement. Fry said there was a real need to replace alkaline batteries in high-power usage devices like touchless thermometers, digital inspection cameras and fork and clamp meters.

“In 2008, we began using M12 as an alkaline replacement in our M12 M-Spector. From there, we saw it as a natural fit to our growing test and measurement product platform,” he said.

DeWalt also features test and measurement products in its 12V Max Lithium series. The company’s inspection camera kit features a wireless screen, which is removable for use in tight areas.

“When researching this product on job sites, we found many user frustrations with viewing the screen on their existing inspection cameras,” said Mendy Johnson, product manager for DeWalt. “For instance, users would spend significant time making sure their camera was properly positioned, but they would then have to move the camera to view the screen. Our inspection camera features a cordless, removable LCD screen that allows contractors to view the area they are inspecting quickly and accurately, improving overall productivity.”

One area where manufacturers tend to differ is in the placement of the battery pack in sub-compact lines. Porter-Cable has placed the pack in the handle of its 12V Max line, a move the company said helps cut down on the overall cost of the tool.

“By inserting the battery into the handle, Porter-Cable was able to achieve a lower-cost position. The savings from the battery can be passed along to offer exceptional performance at value price points,” said Derek Vicko, cordless project manager for Porter-Cable.

Milwaukee’s M12 series also features the in-the-handle battery design in a move to make the tools “tool belt portable,” according to Fry, although a wider base, high-capacity battery pack also is available for the tools.

And while portability and lower price points are attractive options for consumers, placing the battery in the handle does have its drawbacks. Vicko said that the move did make the handle slightly wider, affecting the overall ergonomics of the tool.

“When engineered properly, both have advantages,” said Brent Withey, director of marketing for Makita U.S.A.

Withey said the company’s 18V compact lithium-ion batteries are built for industrial applications and use the traditional slide-style bottom design. He said with the slide-style design the grip is built around the hand—not the battery—for superior balance and ergonomics. With the company’s smaller 12V Max line, the batteries can be engineered in a triangular configuration within the battery pack, allowing for both an ergonomic grip and better balance in a more compact size.

Withey isn’t convinced that 12V tools are the future of cordless power tools. In his view, 12V lines serve to fill a niche audience in finish work and do-it-yourself.

“But the pro market is all about 18V lithium-ion,” he said, pointing to a recent survey. Makita’s compact 18V line comes in at a 12V weight (3.5 lbs.) and features an Energy Star-rated charger, which charges the pack fully in 15 mins.

One new trend in corded tools is in the area of flooring saws. Companies like Skil and Ryobi have developed specialty power tools specifically designed for cross- and rip-cutting hardwood, laminate and engineered flooring.

“We identified that while there are products that cross-cut laminate and hardwood flooring, there was no one saw that could complete all cuts required for a typical floor installation,” said Garth Prince, product manager for Benchtop at Skil.

The new 7.0A flooring saw is designed to do the work of both a compound miter saw and a table saw and is designed to run on the floor at the point of installation, saving the user from needing to get up to make miter or rip cuts.

“Professional flooring installers I have interviewed all agree that the up and down to make cuts wastes significant time and also puts more wear and tear on their knees and back,” he said.

Another advantage to the new flooring saw is in the blade.

“Aluminum oxide is an element found in most laminate flooring products, and cutting it is very destructive to carbide tooth blades,” Prince said. “Replacement blades for the flooring saw retail for $10, and in 2011 we will launch a laminate flooring specific blade that is $15. A low-priced 12-in. miter saw blade usually retails for more than $30,” he added.

“When a vacuum is attached to our saw, very little dust is created. This is very important to this type of work, as laminate flooring is often installed in existing construction, where a family is likely living in the home,” he said.

Another important factor in flooring saws is the price point. Prince said that since the saw is aimed toward appealing to the DIYer as well as the professional, it had to be at an approachable price point. Both the Skil and Ryobi saws retail for about $150.

“Most DIYers don’t own table and miter saws and, until now, these [were] the preferred tools needed for a typical installation. The flooring saw’s $159 price is less expensive than buying both a low cost 10-in. table and 10-in. miter. A weekend rental for both these products is $100+ at most tool rental centers,” he said.