Cool Tools: Hand Tool Trends
Published: November 2009
Tool writers always are looking for new tools—a new product or breakthrough feature that has the potential to change how work is done. Occasionally, such breakthroughs do occur—the introduction of lithium-ion powered cordless tools is a good recent example—but most improvements in hand tools come gradually through evolution and incorporate new technologies and new materials to make tools better.
“Tools are designed and made to do work, and their evolution focuses on the task at hand, the function of the tool, and how the tool integrates with the user,” said Mark Herman, national product manager for Graybar, who is in a position that provides an excellent perspective about tools being purchased and used by electricians today.
Herman said there has been no true tool breakthrough in the electrical market since the 2005 introduction by Milwaukee Electric Tools Corp. of lithium-ion battery powered tools, and the rapid proliferation of tools using lithium-ion power remains a major trend today as big tool makers aggressively compete for lithium-ion tool sales.
Meanwhile, basic tools continue to improve incrementally, becoming lighter in weight, more durable, and easier and safer to use. In addition, tool manufacturers can make a strong case that today’s tools offer more value-per-dollar than tools being sold a few years ago.
Tool manufacturers, Herman said, continue to search for ways to increase the usefulness of their tool products. The goals of tool manufacturers are to provide products that make individual employees more efficient and able to work faster, using fewer individual tools. Improved tool efficiencies and ergonomics help achieve those goals. Lighter weight tools allow them to be used for longer periods of time. More durable tools last longer.
Some significant improvements can’t be readily seen, while others are highly visible and clearly set today’s tools apart from earlier versions.
“For example, many improvements in cutters and strippers are not in the tools themselves, but in their blades—how they make cuts, and sharper blades that cut quickly and last longer,” Herman said. “With tape rules, oversize blades are stronger and have larger markings in two colors applied by new printing technologies that make them clearer and easier to read. Magnetic tips and power return make them easier to use, [and] their compact sizes fit easily into a pocket. As tools become smaller, they are more easily carried to the job.”
Herman cites several other hand tool developments of interest.
“For years,” he said, “tool makers have wanted to make conduit benders lighter, but benders have to be strong, and that makes it difficult to reduce weight. Now Klein has introduced a bender made of aerospace steel that is 50 percent lighter and 50 percent stronger than ductile iron.”
Fish tapes have significantly changed in recent years.
“New models have etched foot markings on the tape that won’t wear off. Handles are easier to grasp, and larger-diameter spools play out and reel in more tape per turn,” Herman said.
A continuing trend is the movement toward multifunction tools.
“Tools that do more than one job help reduce the number of tools an electrician has to carry,” Herman said. “A number of suppliers continue to develop multifunction capabilities for that reason, so we see wire strippers that incorporate additional functions of crimping and quick wire bends for wire connecting.”
For power tools, the trend is clearly migrating to cordless, shown by the rapidly growing selection of compact, powerful lithium-ion cordless options that include tool types that previously were available only in corded models.
“Lithium-ion has been the catalyst for this,” Herman said. “With its unique capability of keeping the power band at a very high level through the charge cycle, professionals, and especially electricians, clearly prefer cordless. There is a wide variety of professional tools powered by either 12V or 18V lithium-ion platforms to fit any number of applications. Lithium-ion is where power tools are going and demand will continue to grow.”
In addition to the benefits of smaller and lighter tools, many lithium-ion models have new user-friendly features, such as light-emitting diodes to illuminate the work area and a gauge that indicates the charge level of the battery.
Innovative Products Illustrate Hand Tool Trends
Several products illustrate the observations about current hand-tool trends offered by Graybar’s national product manager Mark Herman. Some are new. Others are not, but all are examples of how tools for electricians are becoming more productive, versatile and easier to use.
Hand bender breakthrough
Klein Tools’ (www.kleintools.com) new Aerohead conduit benders are made of an aerospace alloy using an advanced casting process that makes them as much as 50 percent stronger and lighter in weight than cast iron hand benders. The new models are available in 12 Benfield head sizes with clearly defined cast-in benchmark symbols.
Many basic electricians’ tools have become multifunctional.
Channellock (www.channellock.com) 369RFT linemen’s pliers have crosshatch teeth for superior grip; a nose design that aligns fish tape and a joint path to guide fish tape without kinking, bending, binding or breaking; a built-in 12 AWG wire stripper; a 12 AWG recess for quickly making wire loops; and crimper/crusher for insulated and noninsulated wires. The tool’s knife-anvil cutting edge makes clean cuts with cutting edges that are laser-heat-treated to stay sharp and last longer.
Features of Greenlee (www.greenlee.com) MagnumPRO fish tapes include a rapid tape payout and a rewind mechanism to help speed up the movement of the fish tape and a smaller fish eye with an offset bend for improved fishing. A viewing port shows how much tape remains in the case and allows the user to quickly remove job-site debris. An advanced comfort handle provides an ergonomically friendly grip to help reduce fatigue. A 360-degree uniform grip surrounds the case, and grip ridges of the flared case help prevent slipping.
Making straight saw cuts
DeWalt (www.dewalt.com) portable TrackSaws combine the precision and cut quality of a table saw and portability of a circular saw to make straight, clean cuts guided by an aluminum track. The track has two friction strips on its underside to secure the track without clamping to the material being cut. The top side of the track has four low-friction glide strips, enabling the saw to smoothly travel along the track. Tracks are available in several lengths, and all wear components are user-replaceable and will be availa ble as accessories. Corded and lithium-ion cordless models are available.
A variety of laser tools are available to electricians to facilitate making vertically plumb, horizontally level and straight reference lines for layout and installation; to make reference points around rooms and job sites; and for vertical and horizontal plants on floors, walls and ceilings. The PLS 5 from Pacific Laser Systems (www.plslaser.com) is designed for interior and outside layout of conduit and anchor bolts. The instrument generates five equally bright laser beams for accurate point-to-point work.
When heat means trouble
Excessive heat can indicate serious problems in electrical installations; electromechanical, process and HVAC/R equipment; and other electrical components. The thermal imager is an affordable troubleshooting tool for maintenance personnel. Fluke Corp.’s (www.fluke.com) new Ti25 thermal imager with IR-Fusion Technology fuses infrared and visible light images to communicate critical information faster and easier than traditional infrared imagers. In addition to an infrared image, IR-Fusion takes a digital photo and combines the two together to simplify image analysis.
Lithium-ion revolution continues
Less than five years ago, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. (www.milwaukeetool.com) introduced the first line of professional power tools powered by lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries retain full power for the life of a charge and have allowed tool makers to make products that are lighter in weight and more compact than comparable models powered by other types of batteries. Bosch, DeWalt, Makita, Hitachi and other major tool manufacturers soon followed with lines of lithium-ion tools. Drill drivers, hammer drills, rotary hammers, circular and reciprocating saws, and other power tools used by electricians are available in 12V, 18V, 36V and ultra compact platforms with the smallest drill models literally fitting in a pocket. Lithium-ion technology also has made it possible to design cordless models of several tools that previously only were available in corded models. A selection of lithium-ion-powered accessories including work lights, wet/dry vacs, and portable radios also are available, and there appears to be no end to the range of lithium-ion products for electrical work sites.
Corded power tools also have improvements.
“There still are applications where corded tools are needed,” Herman said. “Bigger, more powerful corded tools provide more consistent power over time. But some corded models today are smaller and lighter. Most of the same issues that apply to manual hand tools—size, weight, ergonomics and performance—are the same with both cordless and corded power tools. One improvement we see in power saws is in tracking devices for making more accurate cuts. Improved tracking also is seen on some cordless saws.”
Cool Tools reports typically cover testing equipment separately from hand tools, but Herman said test and measurement instruments are attracting more attention in the tool market. He also said some manufacturers are adding testers to their product offerings, which may mean the market may become more crowded.
“We see no leap in technology of basic testers,” Herman said. “Demand for testing devices, particularly multimeters, is growing, and manufacturers are offering devices with more capacity at less cost. Some companies also appear to be expanding their product lines to include testers, which could result in a more crowded market. The challenge is to deliver sensitivity and accuracy at competitive price levels, but those capabilities are something buyers must pay for. Of course, over time, technology does become less expensive.”
Herman said Graybar is seeing increased interest in thermal imaging tools and expects demand will continue to grow. Compact, handheld infrared cameras with the sensitivity to make temperature measurements with extreme accuracy are used to sweep electrical installations for temperature differences caused by bad connections, load imbalances, overloaded transformers and other deviations within a system.
“Thermal imaging is being recognized as an easier and safer way to perform many diagnostic procedures and one that can result in substantial savings. As more in the industry understand the benefits of thermal imaging, it is being perceived less as a luxury and more a necessity for a variety of applications,” Herman said.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at email@example.com.