Tools are getting smarter, and I’m not just talking about so-called “smart” tools that feature built-in Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone-based app integration.
The new Milwaukee M18 Fuel cordless hammer drill has AutoStop, a built-in anti-kickback feature that safely shuts power to the motor when it senses counter-rotational forces.
At their recent Pipeline event, Milwaukee Tool product managers described how their AutoStop feature benefits from AI and machine learning as it interprets different application factors and conditions. The goal is to provide the “industry’s best reacting anti-bind technology.”
The AutoStop feature was designed to deliver the “least tool travel in bind up events, for enhanced safety.”
There are also smart tools, such as the Dremel 8260, a new brushless rotary tool. There’s also the Dremel 8250 brushless rotary tool, which lacks Bluetooth connectivity but shares the 8260’s on-board LED indicators for tool overload and excessive temperature conditions.
New Olight high-performance LED flashlights, like the Warrior 3S, have proximity sensors that dim the light and starts an auto-shutoff timer. This helps to avoid the burn hazard that can result from a high powered flashlight inadvertently activating in your pocket.
Higher powered equipment, such as larger rotary hammers, sometimes have safety systems as well, such as electronic clutches that help to provide improved control in bind-up situations.
Some tools feature improved anti-vibration technologies, thanks to some brands’ increased attention to ergonomics and kinesiology.
If you were to look inside older generations of cordless power tools, such as the 18V NiCd tools from 10+ years ago, there was very little to them – simple battery packs, DC motors, analog trigger switches, and straightforward mechanical components.
Now? We have sophisticated Li-ion battery packs with safety sensors and digital handshakes, electronic brushless motor controllers, advanced thermal management, and more.
Some brands’ cordless drills allow for LED worklight controls. Impact drivers have electronic modes.
A slowly increasing number of tools feature reporting capabilities, such as to document crimp completion strength.
The industry seems to have moved away from “connected” tools which offer user-customized settings. Honestly, this seemed like a great idea on paper, but it’s not as practical for handheld tools as it is for benchtop or floor equipment.
But, there are still features that could benefit users, and brands are finding ways to integrate that into their non-customizable tools.
There are challenges here. Whereas Milwaukee’s last-generation One-Key M18 Fuel hammer drill offered adjustable anti-kickback, their latest M18 Fuel hammer drill is not customizable.
I don’t know if Milwaukee leveraged any One-Key-related tool data, but their next-gen M18 Fuel hammer drill announcements certainly suggested that a fair amount of measurement data was used to craft their new AutoStop functionality.
At several past NPS events, Milwaukee had their ergonomics specialist on-site to explain in detail all of the work they’ve been putting into user comfort and safety.
I’m sure other brands are putting in the work too, but they haven’t say much about it.
My point being, tools are getting smarter. They’re no longer a bunch of simple parts, they’re complex and sophisticated devices that also have to endure rough and tough jobsite conditions.
The main evolutionary focus has been about more power, more power, MORE POWER. With batteries, the industry was focused on higher charger capacities, then more power, higher capacity and longer runtime again, and now we’re going towards more power again, with pouch-style battery technologies among others.
But under all that, tools have been getting smarter.
There’s increased focus on providing a more refined user experience, and I’m all for it.
I have been finding myself wondering – what’s next?
A cordless drill with anti-kickback mechanism isn’t impressive. Smartphones have had accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors for how long now? The prices of sensors have dropped over the years, and their sophistication has increased.
So why don’t more drills have built-in anti-kickback safety features? Working off Milwaukee’s AutoStop claims, maybe it is because it’s hard to program it just right, to be fast without being early, and slow enough without being late.
If users don’t want Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone app integration, well, brands are going to have to account for a broad range of user needs and preferences, to suit them all as perfectly as possible.
To do this, tool companies – at least cordless power tool companies – cannot simply be cordless tool companies anymore, they have to evolve into engineering companies with software teams and more.
Hand tools are getting smarter too, although in different ways. Consider modern premium hammers, with advanced materials and manufacturing techniques, “high velocity” profiles, and new vibration-dampening handle materials.
Pliers haven’t changed a lot, aside from high-leverage designs with smaller forward-located pivots.
Screwdrivers… there’s not much going on there. Well, maybe there’s not a lot that could make most hand tools any smarter.
A few years ago, Festool came out with new dust extractor vacuum hoses. While the new braided exteriors were the main selling point, the hoses are also tapered to maximize airflow.
Each product advancement is small by itself, but looking at the industry as a whole, there’s a lot going on.
Not every innovation or feature is going to lead the industry, but everything moves the tool world forward.
Black & Decker and Dewalt’s gyroscopic screwdrivers, for instance, work great, but the technology has not yet become ubiquitous.
In contrast, Flir’s MSX software methods for combining thermal (IR) and visual images have pushed the entire thermal imaging industry towards contrast-enhanced visualizations, with some brands making better progress than others.
Everything contributes to the whole.
There’s a lot going on in the tool industry right now. When I started working on this post, I wanted to share my opinion that tools were about to get smarter. And while I still hold that stance, I realized that they have already been getting smarter.
This brings me back to my question. What’s missing? What could brands be doing better? What is coming next?