Comparing an average power tool, such as a cordless drill/driver, and a smartphone like Apple's iPhone, it's difficult to spot too many similarities. iPhones are not known for their abilities to drill holes or drive screws. Yet the development of the iPhone, its popularity, and its influence on the entire mobile phone market, the changes it has made to electronics manufacturing, the networks that have been built and the software that has been developed, has had a profound effect on power tool design and capabilities.
Even so, the changes fuelled by mobile technology that will develop in the near future - at least in the industrial and construction areas - will likely outpace the changes to date.
The major technological change will be increased connectivity. This connectivity will be powered by mobile-based technologies such as low-energy Bluetooth connections, inexpensive Wi-Fi chips, and the use of RFID.
>http://hnn.bz/mobile-components.png}Mobile technology dominates component availability}http://hnn.bz/mobile-components.png
As connectivity becomes common, it will change much of the way power tools are used in the industrial area. HNN estimates that by the end of 2020, one of the main differences between most "pro" and "consumer" power tools will be that the pro tools all provide advanced options for connectivity.
Given the current state of development, a change like this is likely to drive strong benefits for the Techtronic Industries subsidiary Milwaukee Tool, and possibly disadvantage companies more cautious about technology, such as Makita.
Mobile tech in tools now
The two major benefits that have flowed through from the mobile phone to the power tool industry are vastly improved Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery systems and a wider availability of brushless (also known as electronically commutated) motors. The small size of mobile phones drove development of lightweight, compact, highly efficient batteries.
The numerous advantages of Li-ion over the previous Nickel-Cadmium batteries, combined with the significant advantage of cordless tools in general, has driven a wave of power tool replacement over the past five years.
Brushless motors have also improved power tools by providing more power with less power usage, as these motors can reach between 80% and 90% efficiency, compared to 65% to 75% efficiency for standard electric motors. At the heart of every brushless motor is a computer chip that switches the electric current with microsecond accuracy.
Mobile phone research spurred the development of the kind of chip needed to run these motors, something small, relatively powerful with low power usage. This work builds on a long history of the development of compact brushless motors in high-tech devices, from computer hard disk drives to laser printers.
These two developments have benefited a wide range of power tool users, from the home handyman, to the tradesperson, on up to extreme use in the building, construction and manufacturing industries.
The third development has an even closer relation to mobile phone technology. It is the ability to produce power tools that can communicate - communicate with a central controller, with each other, and even with the environment where they operate. This has become known in popular discourse as the "Internet of Things".
What "Internet of Things" means
In many ways the notion of the "Internet of Things" (IoT) has been something of an unfortunate buzz-phrase. Born more than 20 years ago, in 1994, the concept has been evolving as technology evolves, but it is only over the past three years that it has moved clearly out of the speculative and into practical implementations.
On a casual level it conjures up images of refrigerators that know when they need to order the milk. This is a poor example. One difficulty is that actually knowing when to order milk turns out to be a very complex problem to solve. Also, it's not true IoT because it is just a single device sensing a need and making a one-way communication.
IoT is more than that. Sticking with the kitchen analogy, a better IoT example might be a toaster that helps prevent you burning your raisin toast in the morning. The toaster senses the package of bread, notes its type, and adjusts its settings, possibly with reference to a central computer that has stored your toast preferences. This is a direct communication between "things", with a possible boost from a central knowledge repository. It's the more common pattern in IoT.
The toaster example also illustrates something fundamentally wrong with the IoT name: the internet doesn't really need to be involved. When the toaster and the bread packet communicate, it probably wouldn't be done by the toaster accessing the internet website of the bread. It's more likely that the toaster reads an RFID tag on the bread packet or a Bluetooth beacon on the clip used to keep the packet closed. It is a direct "thing-to-thing" communication.
IoT in construction and manufacturing
On its own, the notion of IoT probably wouldn't have that much of an effect on either construction or manufacturing. However, it turns out that when IoT is associated with other developments in construction and manufacturing, the result has so much potential that, in the case of manufacturing at least, the combination is seen as possibly ushering in the fourth stage of the industrial revolution.
What gives IoT such a boost in terms of possibilities is the invention and development of what is often termed "virtual modelling" of both construction and manufacturing. Virtual modelling means building a model in software of something that exists as a collection of physical objects.
The idea of the model is that it should reflect the physical model as much as possible. Drive a virtual car far enough, and it will eventually run out of petrol. Rock a virtual building with a strong enough earthquake, and it will fall down.
In construction, the virtual model is created as the centrepiece of using Building Information Modelling (BIM). BIM seeks to gather all the information that relates to a building, before, during and after construction. This then provides the single, unified virtual model of the build and the building. Post-build, it is a very helpful guide to maintenance, improvement and continuous renovation.
In manufacturing, a virtual model of how the plant works is part of the Smart Factory specification. Originally put together as an idea in 2008, it was inspired by Mark Weiser's idea of the "smart environment". This is described as:
...a physical world that is richly and invisibly interwoven with sensors, actuators, displays, and computational elements, embedded seamlessly in the everyday objects of our lives, and connected through a continuous network.
The Smart Factory model is designed to sense almost everything that happens in it. This includes major events, such as supply delivery and product completion, down to the smallest events, such as ambient temperatures, and the completion of each assembly operation.
The two virtual models have some differences. In the case of the construction site, the model that drives the BIM is - at least until the building is completed - idealised and therefore incomplete. Its primary role is to drive planning and execution. In the case of the Smart Factory, the model is not idealised. Instead, it is largely passive, made up of a great deal of feedback, from machines, sensors and human input.
Despite these differences, the opportunities offered for connected power tools to help improve productivity, quality and worker safety are very similar across the two models. Building on both BIM and especially on the Smart Factory concept, two movements have already been started with the aim of rapidly developing these opportunities.
In the US, General Electric is leading the field, with its concept of the "Industrial Internet". At the moment, however, the most developed concepts are coming from Europe, specifically Germany. The German government sees the development of Smart Factories allied with tool connectivity as being so important they have labelled this movement "Industrie 4.0", and see it culminating in nothing less than the fourth stage of the Industrial Revolution.
Before we get to discussing what the Europeans and the Americans have in mind, it's a good idea to take a brief survey of how far this technology has developed already, and what we are likely to see further develop over the next two years or so.
DeWalt's Bluetooth battery
A good example of an interesting IoT product yet to gain wide acceptance is the Bluetooth-equipped 18-volt batteries brought out by DeWalt in mid-2015. As HNN has reported in its past reviews, the battery has its own iOS and Android apps. The user downloads these to their phone or tablet, then "pairs" the battery with the device. From that point onwards the user can monitor a range of performance aspects, such as the battery's current state of charge and its operating temperature.
There are three sets of features the Bluetooth connectivity brings to these tools. These are: monitoring of the battery status, notifications for certain changes; and pre-set actions that occur when certain changes are noted.
>http://hnn.bz/dewalt-tool-connect.png}DeWalt's Tool Connect}http://hnn.bz/dewalt-tool-connect.png
In the first category of monitoring, the charge state of the battery and its current operating temperature can be seen. In terms of notifications, the connected app can alert the user when the battery has a low charge, when it has completed recharging, and when it has gone beyond the range of the Bluetooth connection. The actions that can be preset include turning the battery off when it loses the Bluetooth connection (eg. it has been moved off-site), having it automatically switch off overnight, or even setting a defined number of days until it deactivates itself (for example, a battery loan period).
Most power-tool users will see some of the immediate benefits of these communicating batteries instantly. The most important immediate gain is simply making sure that everyone on the worksite begins the day with fully charged batteries, with the charge state checked from one central location. During the day the charge state can be monitored, and freshly charged batteries sent out to workers who are beginning to run close to empty.
Equally, of course, there are some aids here to help prevent both theft and accidental loss of batteries. The batteries could be set to be active only for the day of use, so that if they do wander off, they would no longer work. If the worksite needs to be packed up at the end of the day, it's also easy to inventory the batteries. Each battery can be sent a message to flash a light, so individual batteries can be easily identified.
It's likely that the kind of battery management the Bluetooth connection enables would be enough to cut back on the stock of batteries kept as a redundant backup, possibly reducing the total number required by 10%. On a worksite that is running 200 batteries, that could mean a net savings of over $2000 in equipment costs.
As helpful as many of these uses are, this is really just scratching the surface of what could be achieved even with as simple a system as this. If DeWalt is wise, it will open up development of the software component of this system to third-party software developers, who would be able to integrate the information flow that Tool Connect offers with other software products.
For example, in construction the amount of battery power being used could indicate that workers are not working as efficiently as they could. Very low battery usage could indicate that they are not working as hard as they might, or that some problem is interrupting their work. This information could be integrated with a project management system. Such a system could indicate, for example, cases where reported project progress does not correspond with observed power tool usage, which could warrant further investigation.
Milwaukee Tool's One-Key system
The full suite of Milwaukee Tool's One-Key products is set to launch in February 2016. Where DeWalt has opted for a simple, practical system with its Bluetooth battery, Milwaukee has been more ambitious in launching a comprehensive system.
http://hnn.bz/Milwaukee-One-Key-Inventory-Feature.jpg}Milwaukee Tool One-Key}http://hnn.bz/Milwaukee-One-Key-Inventory-Feature.jpg
The first layer of that system is already in place. It enables users to manage their entire fleet of tools (including non-Milwaukee tools) from a web browser interface. The next layer that will launch in February will enable wireless access to individual tools so that they can be custom programmed. For example, the tool manager will be able to take a specific drill that will be used for a certain job, and set it up with several settings options for torque and rpm. The actual user of the drill can then select the appropriate setting for the task at hand from a short range of options. Further, the actual task that is undertaken is recorded by the system, enabling the tool manager to check back on how the tool was used.
For construction sites, manufacturing facilities and some automotive assembly applications, this kind of centralised control will bring big benefits. It will radically reduce the number of fasteners applied with incorrect settings, for example, and enable companies to more easily meet contractual obligations that require the certification of tasks as having been performed within tight limits - a common requirement in, for example, the aviation industry.
As with the DeWalt Bluetooth battery, it's easy to see how this might develop into an adjunct to project management software. As it tracks actual tool use rather than battery use, the system could deliver highly accurate numbers as to how both teams and individuals are performing on the job.
Suiting the tool to the job and the place
While the Milwaukee One-Key product development is ambitious, already a number of companies have formed a consortium in Europe, and are hard at work pushing the boundaries of what connected tools can do. These companies are part of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC). The IIC has implemented a program of "testbeds", where interested and complementary companies get together to work on developing new systems based on Internet capabilities.
One of these testbeds is called "Track and Trace". The companies involved with it are Bosch, Cisco, National Instruments and TechMahindra. Their goal is to develop a system for factories where each individual power tool can be tracked within 30cm of its location. Once the system can do this, it can tell by the location of the tool and the date what action the tool needs to perform, and then automatically program the tool with those parameters.
>http://hnn.bz/iot-industrial.png}Location-based tool enhancement}http://hnn.bz/iot-industrial.png
If that seems over-elaborate, this is a quote from a case study by the IIC which looked into aircraft construction:
As an example, a given subassembly of an airplane has roughly 400,000 points that need to be tightened down, which requires over 1,100 basic tightening tools in the current production process. The operator has to closely follow a list of steps and ensure the proper torque law settings for each location using the correct tool. Because of the manual process, human error adds a lot of risk to the production.
This is significant since even a single location being tightened down incorrectly could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run. A smart tightening tool understands which task the operator is about to perform using vision to process its surroundings and automatically set the torque. And the device can record the outcome of the task in a central database to ensure the location was set properly. With the central manufacturing execution system (MES) database and the distributed intelligence of the devices, production managers can precisely pinpoint the procedures and processes that need to be reviewed during quality control and certification.
Airbus Case Study
Even this kind of development is likely to be extended still further. As tools become ever-more connected, further details of tool usage can be captured. This might include the orientation of the tool during the performance of tasks (horizontal, vertical, overhead), and even (through sensors located in the tool's grip) the amount of force exerted on the tool by the user.
There are three different components that get grouped together to set up the coming revolution that the German government has taken to calling "Industrie 4.0". These are: the IoT, the Smart Factory, and what is known as the "Internet of Services", or IoS.
IoS is actually a quite complicated system. It enables elements of an industrial production or construction process to interact with external and internal suppliers. For example, a supply hopper might sense that, by monitoring its weight, it had run out of a particular type of fastener. The request for replenishment might go from the hopper to the warehouse. The warehouse might discover that resupplying the hopper would reduce its store of those fasteners to the critical level where it needed a new delivery. Using IoS it would then be able to send out a request for resupply, which would be delegated to a service handler. This system would be capable, through using the IoS, of sourcing competing bids for supply, evaluating these based on requirements, and then contracting for resupply.
In combining these three systems together, the Industrie 4.0 concept is guided by these six principles:
Interoperability: the ability of cyber-physical systems (semi-automated processes), humans and Smart Factories to connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services
Virtualisation: an implementation of the Smart Factory systems in a virtual environment, which will enable managers to model the effects of change and external influences
Decentralisation: a shift from a command-control structure, to semi-autonomous structures that make decisions based on network feedback
Real-Time Capability: the use of continuous data sensing and data monitoring to provide an ongoing over of what the "state" of the manufacturing system is at any moment of time
Service Orientation: offering of services (of cyber-physical systems, humans or Smart Factories) via the Internet of Services
Modularity: flexible adaptation of Smart Factories to changing requirements by replacing or expanding individual modules
Drivers of change
While the systems described above evidently provide the potential to increase efficiency, there are other drivers as well. What initially sparked much of the discussion about the Smart Factory in Germany was the development of the Siemens plant at Amberg. The management of that factory described some of the factors that drove them to develop it along "smart" lines like this:
Dieter Wegener, Siemens' coordinator for Industrie 4.0, argues that companies aren't pushing these developments; consumers are. We want customised products, he says, we want them now, and we want them made efficiently, in order to both bring down prices and preserve natural resources. This isn't possible without networked production processes.
Customisation is not, of course, limited to industrial production, but is coming to apply just as much to construction. By making production/construction processes "smart", they also become flexible, and easier to modularise. This flexibility adds considerable value from the point of view of end-consumers.
The developing tool market
As we remarked above, HNN believes that connectivity will become a major feature of high-end industrial/construction tools by the end of 2020. How will the tool market develop over the coming four years leading up to that?
The release of One-Key by Milwaukee in early 2016 will mark the beginning of a major market change. While it will not affect professionals using a smaller fleet of tools, contractors who look after as few as 30 to 40 tools will find the management capabilities of One-Key attractive. We can expect to see Milwaukee progressively rev-up its One-Key offering in the first calendar half of 2017, at which time we will hopefully see the software side of the system opened up to developers, so that it can be integrated with project management and other systems.
As this happens, the tool lines at Milwaukee will begin to diverge. Many tools will be offered in two versions, with and without One-Key. Other tools are likely to be released in One-Key only form.
By 2018 there will be a number of competing systems available. It is unclear what moves DeWalt and other Stanley Black & Decker divisions will be making. It seems quite clear that Hitachi, through its recent acquisition of Metabo, will be offering similar connectivity. Another key player will be Bosch, which is already playing a central role in the testbed developments at the IIC.
One of the more interesting questions is what Makita will do. Makita has not always been at the forefront of technical developments - for example, it only made battery gauges standard on its products in 2015. To compete in the connected tool segment, Makita would likely either have to enter into a partnership with another Japanese company, or even acquire a company that can provide it with this technology.
What is clear is that for tool suppliers the connectivity revolution will turn out to be a very profitable shift in the industry. Not only will tool purchasers be seeking to renew their tool fleets ahead of the regular schedule, but they will be considering a near-total refresh. To help capture this market, tool suppliers will need to ensure that they have a thorough understanding of this new market, and can offer guidance and assistance to customers who may be struggling to understand this more complex world.