Bluetooth connectivity for tools is now five years old. It was announced by the Techtronic Industries (TTI) company Milwaukee Tool in 2015, branded as "One-Key", and hit the market in January 2016. That followed on from the release of "connected batteries" by the Stanley Black & Decker brand DeWalt earlier in 2015. Both DeWalt and Bosch Power Tools announced matching systems in the wake of the One-Key announcement, and these became available about 18 months after One-Key.
Makita and Hitachi (now Hikoki), which round out the five major global power tool companies, have added some Bluetooth functionality to a few tools, but nothing at the scale of the other three.
At launch, the DeWalt and Bosch systems copied features from One-Key, but they also each had their own twist on what connectivity was, and how it would be used. Five years later, there have been further advances in the development of all three systems, but they have, for the most part, stayed true to their original differences.
The reason why now is a good time to review what has happened in the market so far, is that in its most recent release of One-Key, Milwaukee has moved to include integration with Autodesk's Building Information Modelling (BIM) system. That's significant, because it points to the possible future of these systems.
What Bluetooth connectivity is
The Bluetooth connectivity provided in power tools really consists of two different types. The most basic connection makes use of "beacon" technology, which likely follows either Apple's iBeacon standard or Android's Eddystone standard (or both).
Beacons basically do just one thing: continuously broadcast a universally unique ID (UUID). Bluetooth receivers - such as smartphones - can pick up that signal and retrieve the UUID. They also can assess the signal strength. If the type of beacon is known (as it always will be with these power tool systems) the receiver can use the signal strength to estimate how far away the beacon is. (It's an estimate, because signal strength can be reduced by obstacles, such as people.) The end result is that a single receiver can know it is close to a beacon, but it cannot determine the direction to the beacon.
This kind of access is quite general. Any receiver can pick up this type of Bluetooth signal. There is no encryption, as all that would do is change the UUID.
Milwaukee and other companies with similar technologies have leveraged this capability. Anyone running the One-Key app will pick up every Milwaukee tool beacon running in their proximity, and that information will be transmitted back to the central network database. This means that tools that "wander off" will likely be detected eventually, and their location will be transmitted back to the owner.
The second kind of Bluetooth connectivity is more like the connection you might have to smarthome devices or even Bluetooth linked radios. In these cases, the power tool is also a receiver as well as a sender. A smartphone can send signals to the power tool over Bluetooth which cause it to change internal settings, such as the speed of a drill, or the kickback protection on an angle grinder.
This connection does need to be protected and encrypted. This is done during the initial linking process, when the smartphone app and the tool are "synched", usually by pressing a button on the tool. Typically, a random token is generated, and that token is used to certify future connections between tool and smartphone. Transmission of that token is itself likely protected through the use of private and public keys.
These two systems can be combined to provide a powerful disincentive to steal tools. For example, a tool can be "geo-fenced", so that when it moves outside the connection range of its controlling smartphone, it is automatically disabled. Tools can be loaned to others, with a time limit attached, so that they shut down at a particular date and time.
The main problem that all three companies initially faced in adding a form of Bluetooth connectivity was how to handle incorporating that connectivity into the tools themselves.
Milwaukee saw this, initially, as being all about the tool. One-Key connectivity was built into a limited range of its M18 FUEL line of tools. This has had the advantage of making these tools increasingly theft-proof, as the location technology associated with One-Key has developed, and the network of tool owners has grown. However, it has also created an element of range complexity, as Milwaukee offers these tools in two models, with and without One-Key. Additionally, in its original form, One-Key made little allowance for tools that did not have One-Key built in.
Bosch took a very different approach when it launched its version in 2016. From the beginning, it offered a "TrackTag" that could be added to any tool - either glued in place or secured by a clamp to the power cord (in the case of corded tools).
Behind this system was Bosch's own TrackMyTools app, which offered (obviously) tool tracking. The Bosch system did eliminate the need for separate connected and non-connected tools, as well as being as inclusive as possible. However, it did so at the loss of virtually all theft-prevention safeguards. You could track tools, but not when the person in possession of them didn't want to be tracked.
Bosch also offered in-tool integration, but this was done by purchasing an additional module, that could be plugged into the original (not-yet-connected) tool. That meant Bosch did not need to manufacture separate connected and non-connected tools. However, a little confusingly, while TrackMyTools looked after tool tracking, users had to download the Bosch Toolbox app to customise tools via the Bluetooth connection.
A further complexity was added in early 2018, when Bosch launched a service named BlueHound. BlueHound is an inventory management system that greatly expanded on what was offered by TrackMyTools, enabling just about any construction-related asset (such as vehicles) to be tracked. The system also provides documentation, service alerts and user manuals. Another addition was the ability to integrate with software such as Triax's Spot-r system, which includes personnel and safety management as well. That system works by more or less tagging people as well as tools, so that they get tracked on the jobsite as well.
DeWalt steered a path that took it somewhat between the Milwaukee and the Bosch approaches. Following on from the "smart" batteries it launched in 2015, in May 2017 DeWalt expanded Tool Connect. This expansion included DeWalt tools which fully integrated into connectivity, as well as the Tag, a simple Bluetooth beacon that provides location information and little else, like the Bosch TrackTag.
There is also a special "connector", which the company labelled as the "20V MAX Tool Connect Connector". This can be fitted to the battery shoe on an 18-volt DeWalt tool, and provides basic Tool Connect functionality. According to DeWalt, once attached the connector cannot be removed. The Connector also does have the capability to shut down the tool, adding to theft deterrence.
At the same time it launched Tool Connect, DeWalt also announced a fully-connected mesh network system which, it promised, would power next generation Internet of Things (IoT) products for construction sites. While DeWalt has introduced a rugged WiFi access point for construction sites, HNN has not been able to find any reference to the IoT project post 2018.
To circle back, after the release of the Bosch and DeWalt products, in February 2017, Milwaukee released its own version of the Bluetooth tag, which was named the Tick. This allows a wide range of assets to be tracked by One-Key
In general, TTI while TTI has continued its commitment to One-Key and connectivity in general, both Bosch and DeWalt seemed to have reduced their engagement. One indication of this is that, for example, DeWalt has not integrated Bluetooth into its line of Flexvolt batteries (for its 54-volt range), while Milwaukee has integrated One-Key into its MX FUEL line of 72-volt batteries.
Beyond that, however, Milwaukee has a truly impressive range of One-Key tools, while both Bosch and DeWalt have significantly smaller ranges. The Milwaukee website, in fact, lists no fewer than 1214 SKUs associated with One-Key - though this includes, of course kits and other repeats of tools. Just to give a sense of the range, these are the first 30 SKUs listed: M12 FUEL 1/2" Digital Torque Wrench w/ ONE-KEY M18 FUEL w/ ONE-KEY High Torque Impact Wrench 1/2" Friction Ring M18 FUEL 7/16" Hex Utility High Torque Impact Wrench w/ ONE-KEY (Tool Only) M18 FORCE LOGIC 600 MCM Crimper M18 FORCE LOGIC 15T Crimper (Tool Only) M18 FORCE LOGIC 750 MCM Crimper Kit M18 FORCE LOGIC 750 MCM Dieless Crimper M18 FORCE LOGIC Press Tool w/ ONE-KEY M18 FUEL Sewer Sectional Machine w/ CABLE DRIVE M18 FUEL 9" Cut-Off Saw w/ ONE-KEY M18 FUEL SAWZALL Recip Saw w/ ONE-KEY (Tool-Only) M18 FUEL 1" D-Handle Ext. Anvil High Torque Impact Wrench w/ ONE-KEY MX FUEL 14" CUT-OFF SAW M18 FUEL 1" D-Handle High Torque Impact Wrench w/ ONE-KEY MX FUEL REDLITHIUM XC406 Battery/Charger Expansion Kit MX FUEL REDLITHIUM XC406 BATTERY PACK M18 FUEL w/ ONE-KEY High Torque Impact Wrench 3/4" Friction Ring Bare Tool M18 FUEL w/ ONE-KEY High Torque Impact Wrench 1/2" Pin Detent M18 FUEL 12" Dual Bevel Sliding Compound Miter Saw M18 FUEL SAWZALL Reciprocating Saw w/ ONE-KEY M18 FUEL 8-1/4" Table Saw w/ One-Key M18 FUEL 1-3/4" SDS Max Rotary Hammer w/ ONE KEY MX FUEL REDLITHIUM XC406 Battery/Charger Expansion Kit MX FUEL REDLITHIUM XC406 BATTERY PACK M18 FORCE LOGIC 2"-3" ProPEX Expansion Tool M18 RADIUS Site Light/Charger w/ ONE-KEY M18 RADIUS Compact Site Light w/ ONE-KEY M18 ROCKET Dual Pack Tower Light w/ ONE-KEY M18 RADIUS Compact Site Light w/ ONE-KEY (Twist Lock) M18 FUEL 12" Dual Bevel Sliding Compound Miter Saw
One of the recent additions to the One-Key system has been its Asset ID Tags. These are not Bluetooth connected. Instead they are simple QR code stickers that come in two sizes, and two different types, one for sticking to plastic, and one for sticking to metal.
Milwaukee's thinking behind these tags is that they integrate more easily into the One-Key system than do the standard barcodes. Also, though, Milwaukee had found out in its field-based research that many standard barcodes would tend to peel off, or to become unreadable. The Asset ID Tags are designed to be durable, and extra-adhesive.
As recent as these innovations seem, they are about to be overtaken by even newer technologies. Ultra Wide Band (UWB) devices offer a different approach to location tracking, one which is both far more accurate in terms of distance, and can also provide directionality as well.
Two events have sparked the development of UWB. In the US, the UWB spectrum was opened for commercial use in 2005 by the Federal Communications Commission for pulse-based transmission in the 3.1 to 10.6 GHz frequency range. Following on from that, around about 2015, a company named Decawave began selling inexpensive UWB chips that can be embedded into pretty much anything. The chip is able to schedule transmission of UWB packets and measure the time a signal is received in picoseconds.
The location data returned is very accurate, down to 200mm to 300mm in accuracy. It's the difference between knowing a tool is somewhere in a building, and having it pinpointed as being hidden behind one particular cupboard. The advantage when it comes to helping people located tools is evident.
Apple began including its U1 UWB chip in the iPhone 11, and it is, of course, continued in the iPhone 12 as well. This chip enables the hyper-accurate location tracking. Over the past year there has been speculation about the company launching its own version of the Bluetooth-based location tags that several other companies make. Rumours have included an Apple product named AirTag, as well as Apple simply making access to the UWB widely available to developers.
The difficulty Apple has is that it already faces concerns over activities which could activate federal anti-trust regulations in the US, where the company is headquartered (in particular some of its dealings with Alphabet, the parent company of Google and Android).
There is little doubt that an Apple location tag would severely damage the businesses of other location tags. These systems rely on there being a widespread network of people using their apps (to detect the tags when they are out of range of their owner's smartphone). Integrated into the iPhone, that detection could run constantly - something the apps cannot achieve - on every recent Apple smartphone.
While we can expect Alphabet to launch a similar service via Android, it's unlikely to work as well as Apple's version. That's because the UWB tags depend both on software and on the hardware in the smartphone itself - and Alphabet has next to no control over the latter, outside the smartphones it makes itself.
This places the connected tools of Bosch, Dewalt and Milwaukee in something of a corner. Do they simply persist with their existing Bluetooth systems, or do they integrate some form of UWB tags as well? Much of that will also depend on how Apple handles third-party software integrating with the UWB systems it has developed.
What HNN can fairly reliably predict, however, is that UWB may make tagging consumer grade tools a real possibility. That could include integrating a UWB chip directly into a tool, or just providing a place where such a tag can be glued of clipped. We would reliably expect to see this appear on Bosch Green, Black & Decker and Ryobi tools by 2023.
The UWB tags might also offer both Hikoki and Bosch the chance to get involved in asset tracking, if they can directly integrate the tags into their tools. This might depend on how well the Apple system is duplicated in Android.
In the market
While there has been some adoption of connected tools by major construction and infrastructure maintenance companies worldwide, the take up by contractors and trades would seem to be less enthusiastic. As an indicator of that, searches for the word "Bluetooth" on the websites of Total Tools, Sydney Tools and Bunnings show few, if any, connected tools. The results that come back include Bluetooth sound equipment, some measuring devices that use Bluetooth connectivity to communicate results, a few Li-ion batteries, notably DeWalt and FesTool - but no frontline powertools, such as drills, impact drivers and grinders. (Though, to be fair, searching for Milwaukee's proprietary connectivity brand, One-Key, does return a range of Milwaukee tools for the first two retailers. But then, One-Key is included in the name of the products featured.)
It would seem the tradies who buy from hardware retailers typically are not all that interested in Bluetooth connectivity as a main feature. The factors that do interest them are those that relate to durability, improvements in speed of task execution, and the range of tasks a tool can perform. Bluetooth connectivity, for the most part, does not seem to tick any of those boxes.
One response to this is to suggest we might see some more interesting advances in power tools over the next three to four years. For example, a cordless drill equipped with a LIDAR sensor (now available on iPhones and iPads, and a core technology behind near-autonomous vehicles such as the Tesla range) could provide information about drilling depth. The user would pre-set a depth in millimetres, click a button just before starting, and have the drill automatically turn off when the correct depth was reached.
There is also the possibility of using a wide range of augmented reality tools to help on construction sites. Imagine, for example, a carpenter putting up a house frame, and able see the entire structure from the plans projected onto her safety glasses. A plumber or electrician could have the ability to "see through" walls to the pipes and conduits beneath.
It's not technically difficult to provide that kind of functionality - the real problems come with both cost and durability. The cost relates not only to the LIDAR sensors (which will probably drop 30% in price over the next two years), but to the processing power required to make use of them in real time applications. It would not make sense to embed that power in every single tool. What could develop would be a kind of personal connective device housing the same kind of capabilities as a smartphone, but dedicated to providing the processing backend to a range of power tools.
What this comes down to is that the next wave of innovations in power tools is going to be about connected tools, and not just because of what can be achieved through IoT devices intercommunicating. What we are heading towards are truly intelligent tools. However, we can't afford (for the moment - we will be able to in the 2030s) to make each tool intelligent. So the most likely model is to develop central hubs that provide the necessary "smarts" to semi-intelligent tools through connectivity. It's really a form of distributive computing.
Connectivity, then, is likely to be a major path to innovation. That means today's tool system that enables inventory and some systems integration (both really good things) could in five years be the conduit used to make power tools smarter, safer, more capable and, as a result, far more productive.
The next step
It's true that those kinds of almost futuristic tools are probably five to ten years away being available. That's not because they are difficult to develop - there are probably a couple of dozen companies in the world that could code those up in less than a year. The barrier to their development is not about the technology, but about the systems with which they interact.
The construction industry has already made a considerable step towards developing systems for the future of the industry - it's just that the take-up of those systems has, until recently, been very slow. While it is not the only piece of this integration puzzle, perhaps the most evident piece is BIM. BIM is a good start at providing the kind of data/information "glue" that could make future developments such as augmented reality for construction possible.
In this area, closer to the cutting edge, while Bosch and DeWalt have made some notable contributions, it is really TTI through Milwaukee Tool that continues to make the truly outstanding advances - most recently through integration between AutoDesk BIM 360 and One-Key.
BIM 360 is a construction collaboration system, which enables project managers to consolidate most of the relevant design and build information. While it most closely integrates with other AutoDesk products, such as Revit, BIM 360 also provides for a wide range of additional integrations. Its modules include: BIM 360 Coordinate is used for the coordination of model files that are stored inside BIM 360 Docs. BIM 360 Build lets you collaborate on-site during -construction using a mobile device. It allows you to track changes, issues etc. BIM 360 Layout is used for delivering BIM information to survey equipment. BIM 360 Plan is used for simple project and task management during the construction process. BIM 360 OPS streamlines handovers and limits warranty expenses. BIM 360 Insight is a module that offers a project-level overview of data and analytics.
Users of One-Key can link their account into their BIM 360 account, and then import records such as Projects and Contacts, enabling synchronisation between the two systems. That can create considerable workflow efficiencies. Milwaukee quotes the head of integrations at Autodesk Construction Solutions, James Cook, as saying:
Integrating with One-Key enables us to provide customers access to their asset data in BIM 360 so they have the context they need for project management, simplifying decision making ultimately helping reduce project risks.
However, the really exciting news, from a power tools perspective, is that even more direct integration is being offered. Milwaukee also informs us:
Furthermore, users of Milwaukee's new M12 FUEL Digital Torque Wrenches will be able to upload torque reports directly from One-Key into BIM 360 Docs, digitally syncing torque quality data from the field to the back office. Milwaukee plans to roll out similar reporting functionalities with other tools over time.
That capability is really the end goal of connected tools: direct reporting of the technical details of tasks completed to a centralised project management hub.
Eventually, we could see this kind of reporting, as it grows more comprehensive, being tracked by blockchain processes, which would result in a building certification process which indicated not only what work has been done, but also who is directly responsible, right down to one tool, one operator, on one particular day.
Why does this matter? What is the point behind connected tools, LIDAR, UWB, augmented reality?
The fact is that construction companies and individual trades remain some of the least technologically advanced areas of the Australian economy. While they've benefitted from being the endpoint users of some technological advances, such as those in adhesives, paints/coatings and the development of Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries for cordless power tools, their own practices have changed little over the past 15 years.
This is reflected in productivity as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). ABS statistics show that construction industry multi-factor productivity (MFA - this includes both labour and capital productivity), in the ten years from FY2009/10 to FY2018/19, fell seven times. That includes every year for the most recent five years of that range.
The main reasons for that fall are twofold. In the first place, for the construction industry productivity is seen to have little effect on profitability outside of a certain basic range. Profitability in construction is instead largely driven by market forces. During periods of undersupply of construction services, the price for these climbs substantially, and over the past six years in particular, there have been frequent, lengthy periods of undersupply.
Secondly - and these two factors interact strongly - the construction/housing market is one of the most highly subsidised industries in Australia. Looking back over the histories of construction activity and dwelling prices, the pattern that emerges over the past ten years is that this industry has repeatedly fallen to lows and has been boosted back up again by cuts to interest rates.
That combination - an industry reliant on short supply to boost profits, tied to indirect government subsidies - is a known recipe to economists for failed productivity rates. If anything, as with the broad, general tariffs of the 1970s, productivity is disincentivized, as the government support has been largely based on employment provision, and better productivity would likely see a reduction in the construction workforce.
What has happened during the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic of 2020 is that the "buffer" of interest rates the construction industry had been counting on for the next two years or so has run out. The cash rate set by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is now just 25 basis points (0.25%). There is no room for further cuts - unless the economy re-enters recession.
Without this kind of monetary stimulus, the only other option is fiscal stimulus, which is what happened with the government's HomeBuilder $25,000 boost to renovations and new home builds, which cost around $680 million. That expires at the end of 2020. There might, possibly, be an equivalent package during 2021, but it is highly unlikely this kind of regressive (it favours better-off Australians) stimulus spending will exceed a total of $1.4 billion.
That means that by the start of 2022 the construction industry is going to have to seriously consider how it rebases itself as an industry like any other Australian industry, with its profit gains linked more closely to gains in productivity.
The good news is that Australian construction, especially in home building, is so inefficient that making those gains will not be difficult to manage. And you can be sure that the areas that will receive a lot of attention will be inventory management and BIM - an ideal use case for connected tools.