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Striking a cord

28 Nov 23 With cordless power tools now dominating the construction industry, the writing is on the wall for mains power tools, says Craig Sanders

Moving to cordless means you are constantly needing to keep on top of your battery charge
Moving to cordless means you are constantly needing to keep on top of your battery charge

Perhaps to no surprise, the power tools market remains buoyant. Global forecasts show that by 2027 more than 600 million tools will be sold across the commercial and residential market annually – more than twice the number recorded in 2015. Data from German online platform Statista also shows the power-driven hand tools market will generate revenue of more than US$56bn (£45bn) by 2025.

Black & Decker introduced the first cordless power tools in 1961 and for more than 60 years, buyers have had a relatively simple choice between mains and cordless. But for how much longer will that be the case?

This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Sign up online.

In recent years, the construction industry has witnessed a remarkable shift towards cordless power tools. The technology continues to get better with each passing year as professionals and DIY enthusiasts alike embrace the benefits of portability, efficiency and enhanced safety.

Undoubtedly, mains-powered tools still have their place on the job site, particularly for heavy-duty jobs, but the momentum is also undeniably moving towards cordless solutions, particularly for portable tools used on site.

As cordless technology continues to advance, the question arises: When will mains power tools become a thing of the past?

The growing popularity of cordless power tools is evident from market statistics. Sticking with industry value, the cordless tools market is on track to hit just under $47bn (£39bn) – more than doubling in value in just nine years. When we drill down (sorry) into the reasons behind that, the market shift towards cordless is clear.

A study by market analyst Technavio showed that in 2022 cordless tools accounted for 81.1% of sales in the UK professional power tools market, with corded tools making up just 18.9%. As recently as 2018 that split was 50-50, according to the European Power Tool Association. One of the fastest-growing power tool brands saw an overwhelming 99% of sales come from its battery-powered range.

Cordless tools now account for 81% of global sales
Cordless tools now account for 81% of global sales

Generally speaking, cordless tools have shaken off their reputation for not being as good as their mains equivalents and acceptance has grown across all sectors. Coupled with that is the greater need for fastening tools and the booming construction industry in developing nations.

As demand for power tools increases, and with the use of lithium-ion batteries becoming more widespread, the cordless tools segment is projected to dominate the market’s growth from 2022 to 2027.

A crucial element in the development of cordless tools is the advent of lithium-ion batteries. In the early days, cordless power tools struggled to match the power and performance of their plug-in counterparts but lithium-ion battery technology has revolutionised the industry.

The first lithium-ion battery-operated power tool was introduced to the market 20 years ago, in the autumn of 2003. It was the IXO cordless screwdriver by Bosch and it was powered by a single 3.6V lithium-ion cell.

This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Sign up online.

Developed by materials scientist John Goodenough in 1980, lithium-ion batteries offered a remarkable charge-to-weight ratio, making them ideal for portable battery-powered tools.

The adoption of this technology by leading brands like Milwaukee and Makita propelled cordless power tools into the mainstream. But adoption faced resistance as a result of ‘battery anxiety’ – the fear of running out of juice – and many buyers preferred to stick with what they knew.

Nevertheless, battery technology continues to develop. Reducing the cost of cordless power tools, improving their versatility and eroding any residual battery anxiety will only continue to drive up the market share of cordless tools.

Cordless tools are no longer considered inferior to their mains equivalents and acceptance has grown across all sectors
Cordless tools are no longer considered inferior to their mains equivalents and acceptance has grown across all sectors

The other factor to consider here is the price. While prices of materials and equipment go up, the price of lithium batteries comes down. According to data collected by Bloomberg, the volume-weighted average price of a typical lithium-ion battery has plunged by more than US$1,000/kWh since 2010 and continues to decrease incrementally each year.

The electric vehicle market is the biggest contributing factor to that. So too is its role in the power tools market.

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We have smartphones, smart homes and every appliance you can think of that is adopting smart technology. The same is happening with power tools.

Brands like Milwaukee are leaders in this respect. Milwaukee has introduced a tool connectivity platform, One-Key, enabling users to control and monitor their equipment remotely through smartphone apps. By its own description, the IoT-connected smart tools are backed by the industry’s largest Bluetooth tracking community to help its users connect sites, people and equipment – and, crucially, help locate stolen equipment.

In short, the power tools market is branching out beyond just the tool. These smart tools also offer features like security lockouts, inventory management, and tool customisation, all built to optimise performance and enhance safety on job sites.

While Milwaukee leads the way, others are following. Brands such as Bosch and Festool are also developing their own smart tool technology, creating a range of connected cordless solutions that, in the words of Hilti’s GB vice-president Thibaud Lefebvre, will “reduce inefficiencies at a time the industry is battling tight schedules and labour shortages, defending margins and managing risk”.

One of the biggest advantages of cordless tools is the absence of the huge electrical current that flows through the mains-powered alternatives. Back in 2016, the USA’s Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 53% of all fatal electrical injuries were in the construction industry. Not all of those can be attributed to power tools but they do factor into this conversation.

As well as the removal of the electric current, the absence of trailing cables, and the elimination of cumbersome 110V transformers, batteries are playing a major role in reducing workplace hazards and improving job site mobility.

Some construction sites have even banned corded power tools altogether due to safety concerns. Additionally, cordless tools do not require pre-use portable appliance testing (PAT), streamlining equipment readiness.

This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Sign up online.

Clearly, there are a lot of positives – so what is holding cordless tools back from a complete market takeover? There is only one answer to this question: the battery.

There is no getting over the fact that moving to cordless means you are constantly needing to keep on top of your battery charge. The standard lithium-ion battery will last up to eight hours on the job, depending on how powerful the battery is and what tool is being used.

Every product has a lifespan. The average cordless power tool product – powered by a lithium-ion battery – will last no more than three years if used frequently. Manufacturers claim that users can expect to get approximately 1,000 charge cycles out of a battery before it packs up. But research in 2009 showed that lithium-ion battery-powered tools had an estimated 500 charge cycles.

Ultimately, lifespan is one of the only compelling reasons why corded tools remain on the market today. Quality corded tools still outlast the battery alternative by at least a couple of years. Most people today will know someone who has still got a corded drill that they purchased in the 1980s and is still going strong.

Nevertheless, once cordless tools overcome the issue of longevity we are going to be looking at the rapid end of the corded tools.

This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Sign up online.

With a projected compound annual growth rate of 5% from 2022 to 2027, the cordless power tools market is set to continue its expansion, driven by the increasing demand for power tools, DIY building products and advancements in lithium-ion battery technology.

Given this rapid progress, it is only a matter of time before cordless power tools become the new standard for professionals and DIYers alike.

The data shows there has been a huge jump in just five years, from a 50:50 global split to 81:19 in favour of cordless. It is conceivable, as the technology continues to develop and production of corded tools winds down, that the ratio will be 90:10 by 2027.

Give it another 10 years and I’m not sure there will be any mains power tools at all. With all their obvious benefits, cordless tools have already become the preferred choice for most. The day when mains power tools disappear from the shelves and become a relic of the past is already almost upon us.

Craig Sanders is joint managing director of Protrade, a UK-based supplier of power tools and associated products

This power tool, with its hazardous trailing cable, will be obsolete within 10 years, predicts Craig Sanders
This power tool, with its hazardous trailing cable, will be obsolete within 10 years, predicts Craig Sanders

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