With construction down, concrete contractors aren't inclined to spend money needlessly. But tool manufacturers are pushing forward with research and development, readying a new generation of cordless power tools. They intend to be prepared with the tools their customers want when the market picks up again.

They're developing tools with more power and functions, and battery systems with more flexibility and longer service life. Here is a look at what's new and what's just beyond the horizon.

Battery systems

The trend away from NiCad and NiMH and toward lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery technology is clear, as more manufacturers and tool users recognize its advantages. Chief among these is the Li-ion battery's lighter weight relative to the power it provides. Manufacturers that use Li-ion technology can choose to offer more powerful tools at a given weight or provide tools of comparable power at lighter weights. Another Li-ion advantage is greater cycle life; the ability to last through many more discharge/recharge e cycles than other rechargeable batteries.

In developing their Li-ion platforms, Hitachi and DeWalt have produced battery packs that are “backwards-compatible” with earlier tools. This allows contractors to realize Li-ion's' benefits in tools they already own by purchasing new batteries and chargers.

Max USA's cordless rebar-tying tools currently use NiCad and NiMH batteries, but MAX's parent company produces Li-ion-powered units in Japan, and plans to introduce them to the U.S. market sometime next year.

Toolbelt portability

By reducing the size and weight of tools without sacrificing power, manufacturers help contractors boost productivity. When crew members can carry tools easily and use them comfortably, it saves time and effort, and reduces fatigue. Paul Fry, group product manager for Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., says that the company's new 12- and 18-V Li-ion platforms take tools such as platformscutoff saws and hammer drills from “jobsite portable to toolbelt portable.” As an example, Fry cites Milwaukee's new 18-V hammer drill. new 18 hammer drill

Ergonomic factors

Size and weight reduction are important, but toolmakers focus on other factors in power tool design. How the tool balances in the hand, the shape and angle of the grip, all contribute to the user's comfort and satisfaction. Manufacturers welcome and rely on customer input, knowing that even small changes in these features can enhance a tool.

Tom Baldwin, group product manager for DeWalt's cordless line, says “It's important to pay attention to ho how the user interacts with the tool. It's not just the weight. If we can make it easier for the user to switch speeds or switch between different modes of operation, that change can cut downtime and improve productivity day in and day out.”

Max USA's national sales manager John Dominice says that customer requests for improvements or new features help spur research and development efforts. “We're always looking to improve our products. We've been working on making it easier to load wire into the rebar-tying tools we market to the concrete industry. Based on customer suggestions, we're also working to develop extension arms that will save bending and effort when tying rebar in flatwork.”

Regulatory influences

Regulations designed to protect workers' health and safety also have an impact on tool research and development. In a global marketplace, the most stringent regulations have more widespread influence. A 2002 European Union Directive (the European Physical Agents [Vibration] Directive 2002/44/ EC) and a similar 2005 regulation in the United Kingdom, both of which limit worker exposure to hand and arm vibration, have led toolmakers to develop vibration-dampening technology for the overseas market. Although OSHA currently has no specific antivibration standard, manufacturers expect that to change and gradually are introducing vibration-dampening systems for tools in the U.S.

Brad Wheeler, cordless product manager for Makita, expects OSHA to establish new regulations on both vibration and noise over the next few years. He says Makita rotary hammers and impact wrenches now feature shock mounts to cut vibration that cause arcing between the tool and battery. By doing this, the shock mounts help extend battery life.

Several manufacturers also said they expect to develop dust collection systems for cordless saws and drills similar to new corded tools. Because the dust generated from cutting concrete has both health and environmental impacts, dust collectors also might be mandated in the foreseeable future.

Long-term prospects

When asked to predict the likely development of cordless tool technology over the long term, manufacturers report that the trend toward smaller, but more durable and powerful machines would continue. No one is anticipating the complete demise of corded tools, however. For serious demolition and some other jobs, traditional AC- or pneumatic-powered tools will continue to hold sway.

Kenneth A. Hooker is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Ill.

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