I’ve been following and reporting on the tool industry for more than 12 years now, and there have been quite a few game-changing cordless power tool innovations in that time.
It seems that every time cordless tech and developments plateau, a tool brand will take things to a new level, kicking off a new round of innovations and fierce competition.
Cordless developments seem to be plateauing once more, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’re approaching another such inflection point. If so, what will come next?
Let’s take a look at some of the big upgrades that ToolGuyd has been reporting through.
From NiCad to Li-ion
A little more than 10 years ago, brands started converting over from NiCad battery tech to Lithium-ion, at least for their flagship products.
Li-ion batteries held many advantages, although battery cell tech wasn’t very close to where it is today. Early on, for example, there were complaints about Li-ion batteries performing very poorly in colder temperatures.
Many brands created new cordless power tool systems and battery form factors based on Li-ion tech, leaving NiCad and other battery technologies behind, while others simply upgraded their battery packs.
Lithium-ion batteries brought about a new era of cordless power tool advancements, ultimately leading to the idea of a “cordless jobsite.”
Bigger Batteries and Longer Runtimes
Lower battery cell capacities and power-hungry motors led to meager runtime specs compared to today’s standards. There was a hard limit on power tool performance, which limited the types of tools brands could offer.
For instance, 6-1/2″ wasn’t a compact circular saw size a few years ago, it was the only or largest option for many brands.
Higher battery cell capacities led to dramatically longer runtimes, which meant fewer interruptions and trips to the charger.
It seemed that each major step up in battery capacity was a significant achievement.
At the same time, many tool brands were continuing to expand their lineup with new product types and upgrades to earlier models.
Brushless Motor Tech
Brushless motors have changed everything yet again, and I would say that this has been as important a development as the advancement of Li-ion batteries.
Brushless motors are more efficient that brushed motors, which means more power, extended runtime, or often a combination of both.
We now have cordless table saws, 12″ miter saws, and so much more.
Earlier cordless grinders were simply described as cut-off tools. Why? I was told that it’s because they didn’t deliver enough power or runtime to be advertised for cordless grinding applications. Now, there are not only cordless angle grinders but larger ones.
Higher Voltage Cordless Systems
Cordless tool brands diverged when it came to next-generation cordless tools.
Some brands, such as Makita, doubled up on 18V batteries to deliver higher voltage tools, and other brands, such as Dewalt and Metabo HPT, opted for higher voltage battery packs that were also backwards compatible with their lower voltage systems.
Higher voltage cordless power tool systems seemed to all but disappear, only to reemerge with next-level brushless motors, power, and capabilities.
Quite a few brands also created higher voltage platforms to offer better performing cordless outdoor power tools, paving the way for alternatives to electric and gasoline engine tools. Developments and innovations in the cordless OPE and landscaping industry have largely paralleled those in the construction, trades, woodworking, hobbyist, and DIYer tool industries.
Higher Li-ion Output Batteries
We also now have even higher capacity batteries.
There are actually two parts to this. First, some brands, starting with Milwaukee, added an extra row of cells to their highest performing batteries. Milwaukee kicked things off with “HD” batteries built with 15 cells instead of 5 or 10, and other brands – Bosch and Dewalt – have done the same.
So, we now have batteries with more batteries. Both on top of that and separate from it, we also now have batteries built with larger form factor Li-ion cells.
Earlier – and current – battery tech involves 18650-sized Li-ion cells, and newer higher performing batteries feature 21700-sized cells. The 5-digit classification refers to battery cell standards and nominal dimensions, with 21700 cells being physically larger than 18650 sized cells.
When you have a physically larger battery cell, you can have comparable charge capacity with lower charge density, which results in cooler-running batteries that can deliver greater current output. Or, you can reach new levels of battery charge capacity. There’s enough headroom where we now have higher capacity battery packs that can deliver more power and longer runtime compared to older Li-ion battery pack tech.
What this all means is that modern battery tech and brushless motor tech can combine to deliver new levels of power and performance.
Compact and More Affordable Brushless Motor Tech
It used to be that only the most premium and highest performing cordless power tools featured brushless motors. Brushless motors were a feature reserved for tool brands’ flagship tools.
Now, we have “subcompact” and even value-priced brushless options.
Brushless motor tech has become so commonplace these days that some brands don’t even emphasize it anymore.
More Controls and User Settings
Brushless motors have also unlocked new features and capabilities that are tied into their more sophisticated controls.
A brushless vacuum, for example, might have multiple power and suction settings.
Or, you might have a brushless impact driver with multiple speed and torque settings.
Today, you can find brushless tools with multiple power settings, electronic clutches, and special speed modes, with none of this really being possible with brushed motor tech, at least not as easily or feasibly.
What Comes Next?
Cordless power tool has come a long way, and with some of the advancements discussed above changing things in very big ways.
We have not quite reached a new power and performance ceiling, but I cannot help but find myself wondering about what comes next.
I hoped that detailing the major milestones would help me see where things could be going, but all I can see is the obvious. Some of the Li-ion advancements came as a surprise, such as the introduction of 3-row/15-cell batteries. What new surprises might there be in the near future?
Milwaukee Tool launched their MX FUEL cordless equipment system nearly 2 years ago, and there hasn’t been much expansion since then. Dewalt has a new 15Ah FlexVolt battery, and it looks like it be the spearhead of something big for the brand. Even Makita has a new high cell-count battery as part of their XGT system.
Dewalt has also been blurring the line between FlexVolt and 20V Max, such as with their new cordless air compressor. Could this be tied to the brand potentially taking FlexVolt into a new and even higher powered direction?
I feel that fierce competition at the next level of higher performing cordless power tools and tech is bound to happen, where brands strive to offer next greatest “I can’t believe that’s battery powered” tools and equipment. This would be an easy prediction to make, that another ceiling will be broken through, unlocking a new tier of cordless functionality and capabilities.
But, there are always “quality of life” types of improvements that follow in the wake of every major advancement. For example, each new generation of cordless drill is made smaller and smaller, and the same has been true for impact drivers and wrenches. Impact tools have also benefited from new fastener tightening and loosening modes that brushless motors made possible.
We also have tools with anti-kickback tech, but this hasn’t seen as wide adoption as other modern features.
What do you think will come next? What do you want to see come next to cordless power tools – are there any features or capabilities that will improve your work or user experiences in some way?