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The evolution of Basic tool types occurs slowly (think screwdrivers and measuring tapes). Then there are times when a new tool technology (or the advancement of an old approach) rapidly changes a market segment (e.g., lithium-ion batteries for professional hand tools).
During this past down year, there has been a surprising number of positive changes in the market for electricians’ tools. Trends that continued through 2011 include the expansion of major suppliers’ product lines into tool categories outside their traditional specialties, the addition of multiple cordless products based on lithium-ion power, the introduction of more multi-purpose tools, and continuing efforts to design and manufacture tools that are easier to use and more durable with features that boost worker’s productivity.
Representatives of four leading tool manufacturers serving the electrical industry discussed general trends they have seen during 2011 and directions in which they believe their companies are heading.
Greenlee (www.greenlee.com), Doug Eichner, vice president of management and engineering, said, “Renewed demand for tools has driven double-digit growth across all tool categories, as Greenlee has launched a dozen new products thus far in 2011 and has several in development. We actually have increased spending on product development at a time when the housing market takes one step back for every two steps forward and while there has been slow growth in residential construction, we have seen very strong growth in the maintenance/repair/operation [MRO] sectors and industrial markets as manufacturing plants upgrade and retool.
“Many manufacturers—including Greenlee—continue to explore vertical markets as possible revenue streams.
I believe you will see traditional manufacturers of electrical products venturing into security, plumbing, HVAC and automotive tool markets.
“Greenlee has launched the ProVL line of seven versatile and lightweight lithium-ion power tools developed specifically for electrical contractors. This launch is a direct response to what our customers, both end-users and distributors, have been requesting.
“Lithium-ion battery-powered cutters and crimpers also are in demand. Some now come with a new line of lithium-ion powered batteries. All these new tools have IntelliCRIMP, a pressure sensor that notifies users if the crimping force is below specifications for a successful crimp with both visual and audible alerts. Most models also have a new automatic retraction stop feature, which automatically retracts the ram just enough to get ready for the next cycle, saving time and energy.
“Technology has caught up to electric benders to enable consistent and accurate bends in EMT, IMC, steel rigid, aluminum rigid, stainless-steel rigid and PVC-coated-steel rigid conduits. New benders now come with state-of-the-art LCD [liquid crystal display] interface that allows the operator to easily program, save, transfer and recall multiple bends via a USB drive.
“As the trend of crossing over from cooper to fiber installations continues, the need for specific tools to meet their needs is an avenue of growth for many tool manufacturers. Manufacturers that provide sets of tools for these two installations will benefit.
“Construction forecasts for residential and nonresidential are much better in 2012; however, many of the forecasts of the past 12 months have extended the dates for improvements to occur. Outside of the debt crisis ‘panic,’ we expect improving economics across most industries, which will drive job growth, demand for housing and infrastructure,” Eichner said.
Ideal Industries Inc. (www.idealindustries.com), Joe Saganowich, vice president of sales, said, “Growth for the overall tool industry continues to be dampened by a lack of an uptick in new housing starts and construction expenditures. Certainly, most professionals are feeling the economic conditions and, in my opinion, are holding onto tools longer before replacing. [And,] tool buyers are carefully watching purchases.
“That said, we see positive year-over-year demand across all business sectors. Ideal has maintained an aggressive, pro-growth stance throughout the economic downturn. We have introduced more new products over the past two years than any other [time] in our history.
“Ideal tool sales, especially in the electrical channel, have seen a steady rise over the past 12 months, resulting from an exciting portfolio of new products combined with strategic coordination of our recent acquisitions of Pratt-Reed and Western Forge, which enhance our manufacturing capabilities and further emphasize our strong focus on American-made quality, service and value. Ideal is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of screwdrivers.
“Tools used in the installation and maintenance of data communications networks continue to escalate in demand, indicating that the upward trend will carry on, especially in areas like video surveillance and fiber to commercial buildings. Another area of growth is green energy, such as tools used in the construction of windmills,” Saganowich said.
Klein Tools (www.kleintools.com), John McDevitt, executive vice president of sales and marketing, said, “Demand for electrical tools has improved over the last 12 months but is still significantly below the levels seen prior to 2008. Demand for professional electrical hand tools dropped 30 to 35 percent from late 2008 through 2009. Since then, there has been a steady, slow recovery in this category. Industrial MRO demand recovered in 2010, and it continues to be solid in 2011. However, the level of unemployment in the construction trades, which drives demand for hand tools, has recovered very little. On the bright side, this means that there is a lot of room for growth if we can get construction back to the pre-2008 levels.
“At the outset of the economic downturn, Klein Tools—like most businesses—made adjustments in production staffing. Since then, we have actually been investing in the business in most areas. Our successful launch of several new product lines required higher levels of advertising and promotion spending, and those investments have paid off. Our market share has actually increased during this down market, growing both legacy and new product lines. We continue to invest in engineering and product development and are very pleased with the results.
“As a way to achieve growth in a slow market, Klein Tools introduced an innovative line of test and measurement products. The program has been a great success, exceeding expectations. Safety ratings and durability are driving the test and measurement market. Professionals want products with the best features. Among the top three are CAT IV safety ratings, high durability and easy-to-use features. Klein Tools partnered with UEi Test Instruments, a leading manufacturer of portable testing and measuring equipment, to continue developing the very best tools and testers designed by electricians for electricians. The meters and testers are specifically loaded with innovative, timesaving features for greater efficiency on the job and superior overall value.
“Regarding basic hand tools, renewed cost sensitivity due to the current economy makes multiple-function hand tools and testers in great demand. Professional-quality, multifunction tools, such as Klein’s interchangeable multibit screwdrivers/nut drivers, are great options for electricians because of their convenience, weight savings for added comfort and overall value. Focusing on products that save tradesmen and contractors time and money is critical, especially during lean economic times. This is not a reference to pricing; it is about total value to the electricians and contracting companies.
“The voice/data/video [VDV] market is in recovery mode, now driven by data over IP applications using more twisted-pair Cat 5e and higher wiring. One example is the migration of security and surveillance from cameras using coax to cameras using Cat 5e wiring. Twisted-pair termination is more complicated, and installers are demanding multifunction tools to help simplify the process, such as Klein Tools’ ratcheting modular crimper/stripper, which can cut, strip and terminate all in one,” McDevitt said.
Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. (www.milwaukeetool.com), Shane Moll, senior vice president and general manager, tools, said, “The overall market for power tools in the electrical market has shown moderate growth over the past 12 months. Showing strongest growth are products [that] deliver a demonstrable impact on increasing productivity, efficiency and durability. Lithium-ion cordless power tools continue to gain acceptance with electricians due to their increased performance in a compact package size. In addition, cordless application-specific solutions that solve everyday problems continue to perform very well.
“Milwaukee M12 and M18 Red lithium-ion cordless products, offering unparalleled runtime, performance and durability, have been in very high demand throughout the year. Game-changing improvements in cordless power tool technology are just beginning. More technologies on the horizon will truly change the way electricians go to work.
“The introduction of Milwaukee test and measurement equipment and hand tools are examples of our expansion into adjacent product categories. This expansion was not driven by economic conditions but by the opportunity Milwaukee recognized to enhance the productivity of electricians through these new product categories.
“One of the newest additions is the Milwaukee fluorescent lighting tester introduced in October. Previously, no meter existed to completely troubleshoot fluorescent lights. This new-to-world instrument can test lamps, ballasts, and pins. A worker can troubleshoot an entire building, and then replace only the lamps and ballasts that need fixing.
“In a down market, Milwaukee has continued to increase its investment in resources to bring new and innovative products to electrical markets throughout the rest of the year and into 2012,” Moll said.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at [email protected].