Will an "Ultimate" Cordless Family Ever Exist?

Early morning “coming off of 24-hour duty and trying to kill some time” post…

Will we ever be able to buy into a cordless platform with the knowledge that it will be the last we ever have to buy? I don’t mean that there will be only one line of tools to choose from, but rather that each manufacturer will eventually adopt its own ultimate line or family. By line, I mean 12v, 18v, etc. By family I mean 2 or more lines that offer some degree of interchangeability between batteries and/or tools.

We’ve watched manufacturers change battery platforms quite frequently over the past ten years. From clunky and high maintenance (by today’s standards) Nickel-Cadmium batteries in relatively primitive tools, through the transitory 1.3 to 3.0 amp-hour lithium-ion batteries originally designed for those same tools, to today’s 2.0 to 9.0 amp-hour batteries running brushless and even programmable tools, cordless technology has come a long way. Brands such as DeWalt, Milwaukee, Bosch, and Makita have strong 18v systems and varying degrees of success in other voltages (7.2/8v Max, 10.8/12v Max, etc.). Even DiY lines like Ryobi, Black and Decker have 4.0 amp-hour batteries, and while B&D offers only the basics, Ryobi has an enviable assortment of One+ tools to choose from.

Recently, DeWalt released its FlexVolt line, designed to complement the 20v Max tools by using batteries that are compatible with the latter (though 20v Max batteries are unable to be used in FlexVolt tools). More-so than other companies, DeWalt seems to be interested in establishing some level of compatibility by creating accessories and tools which are compatible with various battery systems; such as a wet/dry vacuum, area light, and radios which accept both 18v and 20v max batteries; or chargers, a USB power port, and speakers which permit 20v Max or 12v Max batteries to be used.

Meanwhile, companies like Milwaukee, Bosch, and Makita are staying with their tried and true 18v systems, releasing more and more efficient brushless tools and more capable batteries to run them. A handful of batteries can now run tools that we once thought would never be unplugged, allowing us the freedom to work without a nearby power source if needed.

Eventually, though, it comes down to how long these systems will be expanded or even offered. While the M18 and 20v Max, not to mention other brands, may be dominant in today’s world, what will we be using in another 10-20 years? To put it in perspective, twenty years ago I worked hanging gutters. My boss had a few Black and Decker and DeWalt UniVolt drills with batteries ranging from 7.2 to 9.6 volts (I still have my drill with a 7.2v and an 8.4v battery and charger, pretty sure they won’t hold a charge anymore). The “big” drill was a 14.4v hammer drill that was used for downspout straps. We’d have to plug in a charger and keep spare batteries at hand. If I were to start that job or a similar one today, I’d be using a brushless impact driver to drive screws, brushless drill for the holes, and would be able to do a few days’ work with one battery. Twenty years from now I hope to still be able to buy fresh factory new batteries that work with my tools, and to get them at prices similar to or lower than what they cost nowadays.

Anyway, sorry for the long-winded post. Do any of you predict that the major tool brands will continue their current lines for the foreseeable future? While there is always room for more innovation, is it possible that another chemistry may be out there that will force tool makers to redesign their cordless lines again?

Good question.

My answer is: probably not.

Thinking that the world will remain static is almost like saying it will stop spinning. I guess one day at the end of the solar system it will – but let’s hope that isn’t any time soon. When I first saw Makita cordless tools (some of the first to hit the US market) – in 7.2V and then 9.6V configurations – I thought they were of limited value in a commercial setting – not much more useful than the those 3.6V B&D screwdrivers aimed at homeowners. Then when Porter Cable introduced their 12V NiCad Magnequench cordless drill – it became a game changer for us. They are long since gone – (see a few on eBay) – but did good work over quite a few years. Then with battery developments, came the short-lived NiMH crop of batteries/tools – and now cordless based on LiIon chemistry. Not sure what’s next – or when it will come – but it seems inevitable that there will be something new – perhaps sparked by battery development efforts underway for renewable energy and transportation uses – even though thee applications are quite different than power tools.

So unless you begin to believe the notion that “everything that can be invented has been invented" – sometimes attributed to Charles H. Duell (the Commissioner of US patent office in 1899) – you can expect to see change. More to the point of buying into a tool platform is how we view our tools. In business – I thought of buying tools as an ongoing cost of doing business. I expected that malfunction, wear or loss would inevitably take their toll – and replacement would need to be figured into the economics of conducting our business. So we’d buy what we thought was best – as a “snap-shot in time” and move on as needed. We came to realize that many if not all cordless tools were not as economically “serviceable” as many corded ones – even if spare parts were available. We, therefore, adjusted our expectations and “depreciation schedules” accordingly. Sad to continue to realize that we live in a society where a “throwaway and buy new” mentality seems to predominate – but there it is. When a cordless tool continued to work - exceeding our expectations about longevity and performance - we were happy – and I suspect like others – that was as much basis of brand-loyalty as anything else.