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During the 2020 World of Concrete, I had the opportunity to talk with Martina McIssac, the new CEO of Hilti North America. She brought along senior director of electric tools and accessories Eric Hollister to discuss the move towards cordless tools. I wanted to learn about battery technology and where Hilti is taking it, especially in light of their recent introduction of the industry’s first battery-powered breaker, an application once thought a step too far for the cordless revolution.
Bill Palmer: Are we going to see every tool on a jobsite soon become cordless? Are there some tools that will always need a cord?
Martina McIssac: Today, 70% of the tools on a jobsite are cordless but does it make sense for larger tools? We don’t put the Hilti name on anything that can’t perform as well or better cordless as it does in a corded tool. But the reason is not just from the safety factor of taking cords off the jobsite but also time: efficiency and worksite productivity, which is really where we focus. And also today when we design a tool, we consider that there needs to be a cordless vacuum to accompany it. Cordless innovation that doesn’t include dust control doesn’t make sense.
Eric Hollister: We talk about how much time contractors spend coiling up cords at the end of a shift and the dangers of frayed cords but from a safety viewpoint the move towards cordless is even driven harder by the trip hazards and the off-the-shelf power strips that are everywhere on job sites, even in wet environments. The reality is that within the next five years, we will begin to see fully cordless jobsites.
BP: What are the barriers to moving to cordless?
MM: The perception among contractors is that they will buy a cordless tool and it will interrupt their day because the battery will fail. But today the batteries have gotten so good that we can get more work out of a battery than most people will do in a day. That’s the first hurdle to get over and the proof is in actually working with the tool.
EH: That’s the first comment from every contractor when we introduce a new cordless tool, but the reality is that they’re not going to actually use that tool 100% all day long with the trigger pulled. So we design the tools to provide the right amount of work versus weight to get through their application set and to their break when they can recharge. That way it doesn’t interrupt their work schedule.
BP: What’s the deal with the various voltages? Is voltage an important factor for a contractor looking at cordless tools?
MM: There’s an interesting marketing and labeling factor at play. Sometimes we put out the message that the battery has to be at such and such an amperage and voltage but in fact what it has to do is get you through your workday efficiently without needing to be charged. So instead we focus on ergonomics and weight and provide the power needed to get the job done. We don’t over-power the tool.
EH: We have contractors come by and look at our new 12-volt line and say, but can this really do the job for a pro with only 12 volts? But the truth is those tools can do everything needed at a fraction of the weight of higher voltage tools. The ideal voltage is always a question of performance versus ergonomics. Higher voltage is used for higher power output for more demanding applications. The higher the voltage the less current you need to draw for the same amount of power. At higher voltages you reduce the current draw which reduces the heat across the interface which is less waste and less damaging to the interface. There is a technical benefit to using higher voltage, but the higher voltage comes at a cost, in terms of more cells which means a little more weight. So we come back to how do we make the system the most efficient for the application. Today we are getting higher power density out of our batteries so we don’t necessarily need the higher voltage, the ergonomics outweighs the performance requirement.
MM: It’s a system. If you over-power the tool, that means more weight which leads to strain and reduced productivity.
EH: Another myth that we still hear today from contractors is that the tool won’t have enough power. That leads to them buy tools with more power than they really need which reduces productivity. If you can put an efficient tool in a worker’s hand that’s 60 to 70% of the weight of another tool, that’s a huge benefit.
BP: Are battery tools heavier or lighter than corded?
EH: It’s true that the weight is what is keeping some corded tools on the jobsite. When you have a cordless tool you are putting the power source into the tool so you are adding weight. But what is driving people to cordless today is that the battery technology has advanced to where we can drop the weight and still achieve the same power.
BP: Are the batteries still getting better?
EH: Yes, batteries are getting better every year, more efficient, more durable. But lithium technology still has legs, room to grow, higher energy density that allows us to do more inside the same package. The analogy is to think about where pickups were in the 1980s with a V8 or even a V12 engine to get the needed horsepower versus today when you can get that horsepower with a supercharged V6. It’s all about efficiency.
BP: Is Hilti coming out with any new products?
MM: We are always looking to expand what we provide the construction market but today it’s more in the workflow—software and services. Services is becoming incredibly important as contractors work to improve their productivity. Hilti’s goal is to become more than a tool company. Contractors have to compete and where they need to win is in the way they use their materials and their assets and the way they handle documentation at the end of a project. We can help them transform their company. We’ve always been the partner that understands what they do and can help them take the next step.
EH: Exactly. The workflow is where we can help our customers become more efficient in their processes. From the tool perspective how we do that is by making complex operations more simple. Total stations for digital layout are the best example. We’ve taken something that only a highly trained surveyor could use—it was always outsourced—and now we have brought it down to where anyone on the jobsite can be trained to use the equipment in a couple of hours. They can get their people up to speed very quickly.
MM: Our customers have trouble finding skilled labor so to the extent that we can make our tools simple to use it’s a great advantage. They are dealing with generational change, bringing in young workers as they are losing the expertise they have relied on so it’s important if we can move that expertise into the tools and software.
Hilti has resources to support professional contractors as they look to move forward and resume operations safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a video message, Martina McIsaac, CEO of Hilti North America, describes the company’s support of three priorities to help customers navigate a safe transition.