Sleeping tool giants charge up
Bosch and Stanley Black & Decker on the move
FLEXVolt is Stanley Black & Decker's main innovation
FLEXVolt is Stanley Black & Decker's main innovation
 
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Power tools moves into high innovation phase
HNN Sources
This is an edited version of the story. For the full version, please go to the current issue of HI News PDF magazine:
http://hnn.bz/hinews-3-05.pdf

What is the big news in power tools for 2017? It might just surprise you.

US/Hong Kong company Techtronic Industries (TTI), makers of Milwaukee, Ryobi and AEG tools, continues to develop its niche product line, but as HNN described in our lengthy analysis last issue, it's likely on a tick-tock-tock cycle, with strong innovation coming every third year.

In fact, our take on TTI at the moment is that it seems that while the company's CEO, Joe Galli, is enthusiastic about more rapid future development, he's being "braked" a little by the company's investors, who don't have his appetite for innovation.

Makita, as always, has gone ahead down its path of quiet excellence. There is something very Makita-like about its launch of a compact 18-volt cordless line of tools, making use, of course, of its standard 18-volt battery, but with a tool body size close to that of 12-volt tools.

However, Makita is struggling with a very difficult problem: for a company renowned for its great designs and high standards of manufacture, how does it develop a less-expensive, "value" brand that doesn't cannibalise its main brand? The MT Series partially answered that question in 2016, but while parts of its range (for example, the corded routers) make sense, the cordless tools, in the Australian market, really do not. (HNN will be looking in more detail at both Makita and Hitachi in the next issue of HI News.)

That leaves us with two remaining large power tool companies, US company Stanley Black & Decker (SBD), and the power tools division of the vast German firm that is Bosch.

The two companies have much in common, in addition to their size. SBD seemed to emerge during the past year from a five-year process of digesting the merger between the two big companies (Stanley Tools and Black & Decker). Not only did it bring out some real innovations in its FLEXVolt range, but it has also gone on the acquisition path again, getting hold of the well-respected and familiar Sears Craftsman brand of tools.

Its DeWalt brand also "teased" details of network-connected tools, which appeared (by a remarkable coincidence) just as TTI was releasing its annual results. The teaser was largely images, with only one sentence that declared anything definitive:
Tool Connect[tm] updates are coming soon; including a new app, inventory management software, and 3 new ways to connect anything on your jobsite. Stay tuned for more details in the coming months.

That was three months ago, and there doesn't seem to have been any further information released. It will be interesting to see if we learn more over the coming three months.

As impressive as SBD has been with its developments, however, it's really Bosch Power Tools that has begun to show it can take advantage of the very big potential the company has, both with its stand-alone expertise and history, and through its association with the larger Bosch company, and its ongoing research into sensors. While it is likely that 2017 won't be an outstanding year for the company (only a good one), both 2018 and 2019 could turn out to be significant, not only for Bosch itself, but for the industry as well.
Stanley Black & Decker

SBD recently released its results for the first quarter of its FY2016/17. The company reported overall revenues of USD2,800 million, up by 5% over the previous corresponding period (pcp), which was the first quarter of FY2015/16.

SBD also noted that its operations had become more profitable, with an operating margin up by 1.1% on the pcp (excluding merger costs). Gross margin was 38%, up by 1.4% on the pcp. Excluding one-off items, earnings before interest and taxation (EBIT) were up by around 8.5%.

Australia did not perform especially well, with its revenues slipping by 3%, following a similar decline in the fourth quarter to FY2015/16. North America currently accounts for 65% of the company's overall revenues, while Europe accounts for 18%.
Tools and storage

The company's tools and storage division outperformed other divisions, returning a net revenue increase of 6%. SBD states that overall revenues increased by 9% over the pcp, lifted by volume expanding by 6%, and acquisitions adding a further 4%. Fluctuations in currency exchange rates reduced these gains by 1%.

Regionally, North America produced the highest level of growth at 8%, while Europe grew by 6% and emerging markets grew by 1%. The North American growth was boosting in particular by growth in the US market, with commercial (Pro/tradie) sales up by over 10%, and DIY sales up by between 7% and 9%.

Operating margin for the division grew by over 16% on the pcp, to reach 16.4%. In discussing this growth, chief financial officer Don Allan said that every region worldwide showed positive revenue growth for the quarter in this division. He said that:
New product introductions and successful field conversions drove growth in the commercial channel. Strong e-commerce volumes and continued momentum from the FlexVolt launch, field growth in the US retail channel as we did overcome some modest channel inventory tightening.
SBD's backstory and FLEXVolt

The merger between tool companies Stanley and Black & Decker was finalised in November 2009. This has been something of a vast undertaking, though also a proficiently managed one. It has also come at something of a cost, in terms of actively managing some aspects of the business, such as innovation in cordless power tools.

Some measure of that can be seen in DeWalt's 12-volt cordless drill range. A revised version was launched in 2010, ahead of its time in featuring slide-on Li-ion batteries, as opposed to the in-handle batteries that many manufacturers still produce. However, from that time until today, this product has changed little.

While Milwaukee, Bosch and Makita have moved to brushless motors on their 12-volt lines, DeWalt has persisted with its brushed motors. In a recent ranking of the top 10 12-volt drills by respected website Pro Tools Reviews, DeWalt came in fourth, behind the brushless tools of Makita, Bosch and Milwaukee. It's a seven year-old design.

Innovation had slipped so far as a priority in the cordless tool business that at one point SBD management, in response to an analyst's question at a results briefing, suggested that they didn't expect much innovation in the cordless tool area. They suggested development would largely consist of the spread and commodification of existing innovations, such as brushless motors as well as larger and better Li-ion batteries.

The focus at the company was mostly on commercial performance, which resulted in some interesting new product launches - the introduction of the Stanley FatMax range, for example, was a brilliant move in the market - but very few ground-breaking products.

By 2014, with Milwaukee in particular continuing to take marketshare from DeWalt, and evidently starting down the path of more radical innovations, SBD realised it needed to take action. The result was what the company calls the "Stanley Fullfilment System 2.0" (SFS 2.0), which works like an "operating system" for innovation. This was introduced in early 2015.

In its corporate financial filings, SBD describes SFS 2.0 like this:
Entitled "SFS 2.0" this refreshed and revitalized business system will continue the progress on core SFS, but importantly, provide resources and added focus into (1) commercial excellence, (2) breakthrough innovation, (3) digital excellence and (4) functional transformation.

SFS 2.0 is something that gets SBD executives very excited - which is great to see. It's also probably one of the few corporate innovation programs that sometimes gets marketed directly to shareholders. In a "letter to shareholders", the effort is described as "breakthrough innovation special forces teams", that
... have been assembled across core business units that are entirely focused on generating breakthrough ideas, beyond the incremental. These teams, modelled after the incubator approaches of standout innovators and startups across Silicon Valley and elsewhere, are delivering solutions to unmet user needs and creating disruptive, industry shaping ideas.
FLEXVolt

FLEXVolt, a cordless tool system from DeWalt that makes use of 54/60-volt batteries that can, through switching between serial and parallel connection, be stepped down to 18/20-volt for use on the rest of DeWalt's 18/20-volt line. This system is used to power tools such as table saws, grinders and circular saws, that would otherwise have to run off of mains power. The larger units actually run off of two of these batteries, or 120-volts of current. This is the same as mains current in the US, and the tools can also be directly plugged into the mains, where it is available.

On its launch, DeWalt released information about its considerable success that met with more than a few raised eyebrows in the industry. Really new product launches need quite a lot of what is called "sell-out" in the US, which refers to retailers stocking up on product for future sales, while "sell-through" is product that has reached the consumer.

SBD claimed a figure of USD100 million in combined sell-out and sell-through sales for the last four months of calendar 2016 (to the end of SBD's financial year). There were concerns voiced by industry commentators that much of the apparent sales success might have more to do with sell-out than real sell-through.

Asked about the prospects for FLEXVolt in calendar 2017, the normally quite staid executives at SBD often become very optimistic and enthusiastic. Here is the company's chief financial officer, Donald Allan, describing what he sees as the product's potential in response to an analyst's question at the company's announcement in January 2017 of its full-year FY2016 results:
Yes, I would just add that related to 2017 your comment is correct Nigel, we do see another USD100 million of incremental revenue that is included in our guidance. Jim however did discuss in his comments that we have capacity up to USD400 million. So, in total we have USD200 million in our numbers with incremental of a USD100 million next year so there's capacity to take on another USD100 million.

That enthusiasm has continued through to the most recent results for the first quarter of 2017. Jeff Ansell, the head of SBD's tools division, describes just how far ahead of some expectations the company sees FLEXVolt performing:
What tends to be in this marketplace competitors are violent and if your competitors don't have a response they tend to - they have a negative view on what you - what you're doing and how it's performing. The reality is we couldn't be happier with FlexVolt and if you think of 7% growth in this first quarter 8% in North America, 6% in Europe. We're very pleased with that. But half that growth came from the core, so what it says, our core business vibrant we comped a very big quarter from last year and grew the core at the same time while allowing FlexVolt to provide the other half of the growth.
Our retail execution of FlexVolt is now more than double-digits ahead of what the customer expectations were, which is fantastic. And the uptick and uptake in industrial channels is every bit as good if not better. So if you consider those things and you look to the fact that we are loading new flexible products as we speak in this quarter and we will continue to load new introductions throughout 2017. And as Jim said, in the next several years that has been the real, the real driver behind what you do with this breakthrough innovation team. We have to continue to keep this fresh and we feel that we are quite nicely doing that.
The last point I would tell you is, while it takes time to introduce new systems and power tools, the fact that this does leave the old system behind has led to a much faster adoption than most new power tool platforms. As such, our growth in FlexVolt, the ramp in FlexVolt is 10 times faster than the ramp in brushless as an example. So we couldn't be more pleased and we are we know it's a competitive advantage and the average of five stars. The average user rating of FlexVolt is 4.9, so if you get the product right for the user everything else takes care of itself. So we feel great.

Mr Ansell also explained elsewhere some of the future potential that SBD sees for the FLEXVolt line of tools:
Well, the beautiful thing about FlexVolt is we are able to develop 20 volt tools where they're appropriate, where the max watt outperformance is appropriate. At the same time, develop 60 volt tools where the max watt outperformance is required and obviously there is a cost difference because the 60 volt tool is a more expensive proposition for the user and for us that delivers unprecedented performance, at same time the user wants the right tool for the right job, at the right cost.
So all those things come together and what you'll see over the next 36 months we'll be presenting this to Jim and team in the next few weeks and then you'll see some of it at the May 16 session, you'll see fresh introductions of both 20 volt and 60 volt tools coming within the FlexVolt range and I will tell you that the users pick up on them has been equivalent. The user likes what they can do with FlexVolt batteries under 20 volt system but they really have also embraced the 60 volt performance. Circular saw in particular is absolutely killing it. The portable you mentioned 120 volt, the portable products like mitre saws which are 120 volt absolutely killing it. So the user has embraced all those various platforms and because it gives them the performance of corded in a cordless package. So more to follow but yes, we are very, very active in development of 20, 60 and even 120 volts going forward.

This point about possible future developments was also made by president and CEO Jim Loree at the full-year FY2016 results announcement:
It really is a market share gain mechanism that has enormous potential even at the voltage levels we are at today. And we haven't even talked about going up the voltage curve or the power curve, which we have the capability to do as we develop this technology. And that breakthrough innovation that we're working on will have some more surprises I'm sure, positive surprises in the future.

Mr Allan was also clear that, as optimistic as the forecasts for FLEXVolt have been, the company sees those goals as being largely met during the most recent quarter:
We expect the momentum surrounding FlexVolt, which by the way did meet expectations for the quarter, will be maintained and bolstered by our commercial team's launch strategy, which has a well-designed roadmap of promotions and new FlexVolt tool and accessory SKUs hitting the shelves regularly over the next few years.

Of course, a major concern for SBD overall is the extent to which the FLEXVolt range will be "cannibalising" its standard range of tools, through replacing sales rather than being completely a matter of new sales. Mr Allan commented on this:
The USD100 million makes sense to us right now based on it's too early to really know what the cannibalisation is going to be. And that's something we'll watch closely, but if the cannibalisation is not as high then there's certainly a possibility that we're somewhere between that USD200 million to USD400 million number as the year progresses, combined with some of the factors that that Jim just mentioned.
The FLEXVolt market

The success of FLEXVolt, which seems to be confirmed by the most recent results, was not that expected by most market observers. It's a product that has two "strikes" against it: it is very expensive, and it is close to being "ultra-niche", in that it appeals to a niche within a niche.

It's not only heavy construction builders that will use most of these tools, but those builders whose business would get a big boost from the convenience of very powerful cordless products. The DCS7485 cordless table saw costs $1300, complete with charger and two 6-amp batteries, or $1000 as bare tool.

At a guess, what is driving high levels of sales is a combination of three factors. In many world markets pressures on housing are continuing, driving up prices and pushing developers towards considering more multi-floored, multi-dwelling unit buildings. There is also an uptick in infrastructure construction projects, as government seek ways to support regions which previously relied on more outdated forms of production.

In both these cases, the need for high capacity tools which reduce logistics support problems through being cordless would be high. The third factor is the ongoing skills shortage. Tools which help the existing workforce get more done faster are bound to be popular.

That said, of course, there is little doubt why SBD was so enthusiastic in launching this particular product. Mr Loree explained this in presenting the fully-year 2016 results:
And where we are really trying to attack is at the competitor's install base. And so think of FLEXVolt as a battery system that is establishing an install base as aggressively and quickly as possible that requires DeWalt tools to operate and then think of every year a wave of new tools SKUs coming in that will enhance the substitution of corded products and the ability for us to substitute corded products in the higher voltage, higher power requirements, higher duty cycle type SKUs.
And if you think of it that way, I think it's helpful because then you will understand it really is, well there is going to be some cannibalisation of our own coated tools, it really is a market share gain mechanism that has enormous potential even at the voltage levels we are at today.

The competitor, of course, is Milwaukee. In terms of strategy, at its core FLEXVolt is also a mirror to the Milwaukee strategy of achieving market "lock-in" not only by making high-quality mainstream products, but also by making unique "can't do without" products, that help get customers - especially large customers - to go with one particular charger/battery system over another.
Other developments

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, DeWalt did send out press notices about a new networked tool system it had developed in late February 2017, but, three months later, there seems to be nothing happening with this. The notices suggested it would feature three different connecting systems.

The "Tag", which is similar to Milwaukee's "Tick", is a simple tracker that can be stuck onto any tool - power or hand - to provide tracking.

The "Connector" looks like an adapter that fits directly to the battery slot on a cordless DeWalt, then accepts a standard battery into it, and provides Bluetooth-enabled monitoring of the battery.

An image shows a row of four power tools, likely one impact wrench and three drill/drivers from the back, with a blue WiFi logo on the rear of the motor chassis. In front of the handgrip, on the battery connection plate is what seems like a row of four blue LEDs and a selector button. The text reads: "Tools: Integrated Bluetooth Technology".

To be generous, we could describe these evidently mocked-up images of tools as "artist's renditions of possible future products". The control panel featured, if actually produced, would be an ergonomic nightmare, as it would require reaching around the shaft of the tool to operate. To function, the panel would have to be rotated by 90 degrees, or a full 180 degrees, facing the front of the tool - the way the actual control panels on existing Milwaukee One-Key tools, which already offer this full functionality, are positioned.

HNN would be pretty certain both that SBD has some plans in place for developments such as these, and we also would suggest it will be very unlikely we'll see any of them before 2018. In large part that is because the efforts of the development team will be focused on building out the FLEXVolt line of tools, and SBD will likely not want anything to complicate, blur or distort its marketing messaging around FLEXVolt.

Additionally, of course, there is the matter of DeWalt's much promoted Bluetooth-connected battery, which these proposed tools relate to. In general, most commentators (including HNN, which has tested this device) agree that this particular approach, while not without its uses, is not the best starting point to a fully connected worksite. It provided DeWalt with a connected product that could be quickly launched before Milwaukee launched its far more extensive One-Key connected tool systems.

Given things as they currently stand, DeWalt might be better served by starting development on the next generation of connected tools. These are likely to rely on a central worksite "hub", such as a worklight or bluetooth speaker/radio, that is hooked into the internet via a 4G chipset when WiFi is not available.

Tools would connect with these hubs via WiFi, and provide full offsite monitoring without the need for intermediate connection through Bluetooth phones. It makes sense that this will be the end point both Milwaukee and Bosch will be working towards for 2020.
Stanley Black & Decker's DIY story

SBD had been represented in the DIY area largely by the dark orange and black Black & Decker brand. The company's recent acquisition of Craftsman Tools from failing US retailer Sears could indicate that it is considering reviving this sector of its business.

At the moment, Black & Decker is not competing well with brands such as TTI's Ryobi, and is constantly being encroached on by brands such as Worx, which offer innovative tools designed to make chores around the house and garden easier to perform.

One possibility that could emerge during 2018 is the formation of a division of SBD that is dedicated to the DIY product across a range of products. For the moment, however, it is clear that SBD's focus is more on the professional market and we will probably not see much development of the Black & Decker tools.
Analysis

The apparent success of SBD's FLEXVolt system is a reminder that tools succeed through the combination of two factors: the size of the market sector they go to, and the intensity of demand within that sector. SBD through some very good research has found a niche that is of a smaller size, but has a high intensity of demand - these tools have rapidly moved to the "must have" list.

As with many of the developments of its arch-rival, Milwaukee Tool, there is also the question of to what degree the FLEXVolt technology will create an effect on other tools in the range. For professionals who will never use any FLEXVolt tools, the only possible improvement is that they can, if they wish, buy a large, heavy battery and another expensive charger, and attach that battery to their drill or circular saw to get extended life.

This is starkly different from the approach that Bosch in particular has taken, which is based on developing new systems that benefit a broad range of users. That said, in the process of moving from a company that saw development strictly in terms of commercial excellence, to one that now evidently values the gains that can be made from new technologies, FLEXVolt is an excellent first step. HNN is sure most of us are eager to see what comes next.
Bosch

Robert Bosch Power Tools has reported its results for 2016, and these show an ongoing improvement. Sales were a record for the division of the vast German firm Bosch, reaching EUR4,500 million. In local currencies, the company states, it experienced 7% growth over the previous corresponding period (pcp), which was calendar 2015. Taking account of currency fluctuations, growth came in at 4% over the pcp.

To read more, please go to the current issue of HI News PDF magazine:

http://hnn.bz/hinews-3-05.pdf
HNN Sources


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