Cool Tools: Basic Hand Tool Advances
Published: September 2011
In spite of the excitement generated over the ever-expanding number of lithium-ion cordless power tools, the fact is that electricians continue to accomplish much of their work using basic hand tools.
Crimpers, cable cutters, wire strippers, various types of pliers, screwdrivers, hack saws and other tools in electricians’ kits may look the same as they did a decade ago, but a steady evolution has made them more durable and easier to use.
New designs add functionality
“Multifunctional tools are growing in popularity in select end-user segments, such as electricians, because they provide a way to get their jobs done faster while carrying less weight in tools,” said Kurt Owen, director of product management for Klein Tools (www.kleintools.com).
Klein Tools’ 10-in-1 folding screwdrivers/nut driver tool has interchangeable bits for eight screwdriver and two nut driver sizes, and the driver arms fold into the handle to fit in a pocket. Milwaukee’s 11-in-1 screwdriver has nine bits and nut drivers often used by electricians, plus an integrated gut hook and wire stripper.
Channellock (www.channellock.com) linemen’s pliers have a high--leverage design and knife angle cutters to perform multiple functions, including aligning fish tape and joint path to guide tape without kinking, bending, binding or breaking. They have a built-in 12 AWG wire stripper, 12 AWG recess for quickly making wire loops, and crimper/crusher for insulated and noninsulated wires. Earlier this year, an 8-in. linemen’s version was introduced to fit into spaces where larger tools can’t be used.
The latest measuring tape models come in improved cases that are easy to hold and more durable. The cases feature larger markings, standout capability and magnetic tips. Crimping and punchdown tools are available with battery assist.
Hand saws feature sharper, more durable blades for cutting through various materials.
Newer tool types are making inroads. For instance, laser-leveling devices facilitate marking vertically plumb and vertical and horizontal reference points on floors, ceilings and walls. In addition, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.’s M-Spector handheld inspection camera can visually document installation or repair issues and download video to PCs for review (www.milwaukee-tool.com).
Tool manufacturers are using new materials in many of their products.
“The use of new materials and alloys can significantly reduce tool weight,” said Michael Stephens, senior product manager at Greenlee (www.greenlee.com). “That’s important for reducing fatigue and stress from repetitive use of the tool but also to reduce the cumulative weight of a typical tool bag—another source of common end-user injuries, including back strain, hand stress, sore shoulders and arms and other issues.”
Ergonomic improvements represent one of the most positive trends in tool designs in recent years, and manufacturers actively tout ergonomic features of their products, often without actually explaining a benefit. Labeling a product ergonomically friendly doesn’t mean much. Simply put, as the word relates to tools, ergonomic features make them more efficient and easy to use, often limiting the potential for injury, such as those that can occur from performing repetitive tasks.
The most significant ergonomic features minimize hand fatigue and allow more force to be applied or avoid motions that can lead to musculoskeletal injuries, Stephens said. (Later this year, Cool Tools will feature a report on tool ergonomics.)
How do tool-makers decide what features—ergonomic or otherwise—their new tools should have or which improvements to make to tools already in service?
Input from tool buyers is most often the answer, and certainly, it makes sense to design products that will help buyers do their work faster and better.
Channellock communications and training manager Michele King said Channellock has always made quality and performance the primary considerations when developing any product, whether it is a new tool or an upgrade to an existing one.
“There are multiple touch-points to communicate directly with the company and vice versa,” she said. “The Channellock Nation (www.channellock.com/nation) is our growing online community of customers and friends. Other digital media platforms, such as the Blue Board blog and Channellock’s Facebook page and Twitter handle, allow sending comments on the latest tools and programs directly to us. In addition, we have established a network of contractors and bloggers that receive new tool samples, test them out for a few weeks, and send evaluations about how the tools performed.”
King said such feedback is invaluable for reinforcing the company’s primary commitments—-manufacturing quality pliers for professionals and keeping its manufacturing base in the United States.
“End-user input is critical in the design and development of all our products,” said Klein’s Owen. “A variety of research methodology is used to better understand end-users’ unmet needs. In addition, each product is field-tested before we ship to customers.”
Owen said Klein has expanded its already extensive line of hand tools for electricians and recently introduced a broad line of voice/data/video tools and testers specifically for datacom work. Tool forms are designed ergonomically to fit in the hand with “soft touch” features, he said.
Stephens said when considering tool designs, Greenlee wants to know what end-users want and what results they are looking for. How will they use or misuse the tool? How can Greenlee help tool users do their jobs faster, safer and easier?
“We spend a lot of time talking to end-users, watching them work on actual job sites,” he said. “We have user panels, test groups and advisers that help review new concepts, test prototypes, etc. Also, we get input from the general public and other professionals. Our company has been around for almost 150 years, so we’ve built up quite a following. They’re always sending us ideas for new tools, new features or other helpful advice.”
Greenlee uses a formal product development process that actively seeks a “voice of customer” component at every stage, Stephens said.
“Sometimes the result is a very minor feature, like providing a space on tool handles to write their name for identification, or it could be the genesis of an entire new tool concept, like field--terminating an HDMI tool,” he said. “I’d say it’s extremely rare for any of our tools to not have some feature that wasn’t a result of an end-user suggestion, request or comment.”
Milwaukee Tool, which is known for power tools, has been rapidly expanding its line to include hand tools and test equipment.
New hand tools developed specifically for electricians include the Fastback flip knife, side-sliding utility knife with activation button moved to the side of the body to prevent accidental blade exposure, 10-inch compact hack saw, folding jab saw with tool-free blade change mechanism, the 11-in-1 screwdriver previously mentioned and an eight-piece screwdriver set, said Tim Albrecht, Milwaukee Tool’s director of hand tools.
“Each of these tools address job site application issues that electricians have brought to our attention during field research,” Albrecht said. “Our advanced development team, engineers and product managers all visit job sites across North America to talk to professional tool users to gain feedback. We rely strictly on face-to-face interaction with the pros to make our decisions. We spend between four to six months on job sites doing user research on our hand tools. We work very quickly and efficiently, researching multiple projects at the same time and talking to hundreds of professionals during this period.”
Albrecht said an excellent example of input translated into a product is the patent-pending ECX bit found on the 11-in-1 screwdriver and the eight-piece screwdriver set.
“Electricians pointed out that the new hybrid screws found on conduit couplers, light switches, electrical outlets and many other fixtures strip out their Phillips and square-drive bits,” he said.
“Milwaukee has developed a bit tip that perfectly fits into both large and small hybrid screws to prevent stripping out screw heads or an electrician’s bit tip. In addition, we have added a wire-stripping feature into the handles of our screwdrivers and a loop-maker in the shaft to eliminate the need to carry multiple tools. Both the wire-stripper and loop-maker are optimized for up to 12-gauge solid wire.”
Regarding ergonomics, Albrecht said research showed comfortable, nonslip grips were important and that somewhat larger handles with a semisoft rubber overmold were preferred to the dip-style handles.
“Customer input is the main factor in the design and commercial execution of each of our products,” he said.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at email@example.com.