For the past couple of years, Milwaukee Tools has been inviting select members of the Press to its headquarters to discuss upcoming products and talk about the company’s direction with respect to its tools and design, manufacturing and distribution philosophy. This year at the 2009 Milwaukee Tool Symposium the company released an almost unbelievable amount of tools, most of which hailed from their M12 and M18 lines. Milwaukee has been working hard on these new lithium-ion battery-based tools and it showed. Fortunately, we were there to witness the unveiling.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of what happened at the Milwaukee Tool Symposium, I think we would be remiss in not stating that Milwaukee has taken the Press “junket” to a new level. Not only were the flight, ground transportation, and hotel arrangements handled with exceptional professionalism, you really got a feeling that the company isn’t new at taking care of its own and those it intends to impress.
If they can do such a great job with members of the media, I’d wager they keep their distributors equally satisfied. There are entire industries that focus on arranging events like this. The fact that Milwaukee handled it all internally and still managed to impress speaks volumes of their ability to tackle and excel at difficult projects.
When we arrived we were greeted at Milwaukee Tool headquarters by what seemed like the entire product development, marketing, and executive team. Everyone was sporting a brand new uber-red Milwaukee shirt and there were enough of them that I’m pretty sure you could see a red dot in the parking lot from space.
Introductions and Overview
After grabbing some breakfast, we were ushered into a large room to spend a couple of hours hearing from several key personnel regarding Milwaukee, its goals and proficiencies, and its overall marketing strategy. First up was Steven Richman, President of Milwaukee Tools, who was introduced by Tim Brasher, Director of Brand Marketing. Steven gave a nice overview of Milwaukee Tools, their history, and their desire to provide products with “disruptive innovation, best-in-class performance, and solutions to enhance end-user productivity”. I’m pretty sure we could have all played a drinking game with the phrase “disruptive innovation” as it seemed to dominate many of the talks. “Disruptive” innovation was defined as any innovation that changes the behavior of the user.
State of the (Trade) Union
Next up was Michael Callanan, Executive Director of the NJATC. An electrician by trade, Michael heads up an organization that potentially funnels around 40,000 apprentices into the construction industry each year. He noted that 1 year ago the biggest issue was an impending skilled worker shortage. We were coming out of the baby boomer era and the industry as a whole lacked a positive image. Since most young adults are frequently exposed to the mantra that college is required for success, the retiring workforce in the construction industry faces a loss of skilled labor.
Of course, the current recession side-tracked this discussion of worker shortage but didn’t do anything to address the key causes. Michael’s desire is to see the industry (and the government) work to encourage and finance apprenticeship. It was a compelling portion of our morning presentation and we agree that apprenticeship needs to be a focus moving forward, or the end of this recession will simply dump the industry back where it was before the pull-back in new construction.
Company Goals and Direction
Shane Moll, Vice President, Marketing & General Manager for their Tools division spoke on their goals. Primarily, this centered on Milwaukee’s desire to change how the industry approaches new products and product development. Milwaukee does this by immersing itself in the core trades and understanding the needs journeymen and workers have with regard to getting their jobs done faster and with greater efficiency. This is plain old observation, measurement through the use of special tools, and evaluation and discussions with those working in the field.
From what we could tell, Milwaukee’s product managers spend quite a bit of time in the field and they do it all over the country. The term “disruptive innovation” again reared its head and we could tell that Milwaukee had no trouble in obsoleting even its most successful tools if it could find a way to make them better for the end-user.
One thing that impressed us (and was later born out in our facilities tour) was the company’s ability to bring a product to market quickly. And when we say “quickly” we mean it. The company has brought tools all the way to production in as little as 9 months from concept to shipping. That’s extremely fast (2-3x the market average in fact) and means that the company can be the bleeding edge and adapt on the fly during the design process.
This fast innovation has led to several advances in their tools. Examples include new tools that allow high speed drilling in a compact form factor, powered solutions that replace tools typically in manual or tethered form, the introduction of open frame motors, and even a new compact band saw that allows 85% of applications with almost half the weight.
Scott Griswold, Sr. VP, Marketing & General Manager for the company’s Accessories division spoke on identifying problems and finding the proper solutions. By using a concept development group paired with product managers they can literally go into the field with concept people and gain two perspectives: tool-based and a wider overview of the process and products involved. This, of course, leads to a tremendous amount of brainstorming great ideas and – wait for it – disruptive innovation.
An example of disruptive innovation that Milwaukee is aiming for can be seen in their new right angle drill it accessories. While they currently dominate that market segment, they still noticed a problem. Instead of sitting back and riding their leading market position, they focused on the problem – namely that drilling into nail-infested wood dulls the blade of the cutting accessories. To remedy this they introduced a removable cutting-edge system that changed their existing (and already successful) accessories manufacturing process.
The result is a more usable product that is being well-received in the industry. With their auger bits, they noticed that deeper holes clogged the bits and forced re-starts. By polishing the flutes and adding a nonstick material similar to Teflon, they were able to overcome a common problem. In addition, they made the flutes red, which offered a visual cue for the new feature. There were more examples, like their new diamond reciprocating saw blade that cuts faster and lasts longer than their existing carbide products, but you get the idea.
The newest accessory line that was introduced is the Shockwave line which aims to take on the impact driver market and reduce the instances of broken bits by using better geometry and “flexible” metals. This reduces the shock placed on bits when used with impact drivers. The change is dramatic enough that Milwaukee is claiming 10x the life over typical bits.
Test & Measurement Division Overview
Mike Jones is the Vice President & General Manager for the Test & Measurement division for Milwaukee Tools. This is a brand new market for Milwaukee and they are really hoping to use the Milwaukee brand and popularity to allow them access in this new area. The division is focusing on electricians, HVAC installers, service technicians, and plumbers and is leaning hard into a market valued at just under $1 billion in North America alone.
Additionally, the new division will add incremental revenue opportunities to existing distributors. Some of the more “disruptive” tools included Clamp-Gun Meters that run on the M12 12V platform and include such features as an integrated LED floodlight and an extremely easy-to-read white-on-black liquid crystal display.
The tools really look like Milwaukee products and fit in well with the company’s overall goals. The new division has 15 SKUs in 12 individual products. Seven are alkaline based and 5 are running on the lithium-ion M12 battery system. The entire line will be launched for sale in August and there are additional phases being brought online next year.
While we weren’t allowed to take photographs of the facility, we were extremely impressed by what we saw. Milwaukee truly has a top-notch product design and development team and has the resources to bring products to market with remarkable speed. During the design phase, they have a room where new product concepts can go from the brain to three-dimensional CAD files in no time flat. Once an idea is solidified “on paper” it can be solidified in real life through the use of 3D printers which form a mockup of the tool out of plastic.
Once the ergonomics and internals are settled, the company can make increasingly more sophisticated mockups, including fully-functional tools and production versions that can be sent off for UL approval. Some of these processes involve third-party participation; however, the amount that is capable of being accomplished within the company’s machine shop and other facilities is quite impressive.
After the classroom time, Milwaukee took us through long dedicated workshop sessions to expose us to the new tools. This is where we felt like kids in a candy shop, because not only did we get to look at the tools, but we were also able to experience, handle, and use them.
Band Saws, Grinders & Accessories
The first session covered the new deep cut, corded, and battery-powered compact band saws, angle grinders, and the Shockwave impact-rated bits. We were given a detailed overview of each of the tool lines including, design elements, industry feedback, and features. We were also given the opportunity to use each of the new tools in real world situations. For the compact bandsaw, which weighs in at nearly half the weight of the regular deep-cut bandsaw, we were able to cut a row of 2″ and smaller electrical conduits overhead very easily.
To add to the functionality of the new saw, they added a movable blade guard that allows the saw to do flush cuts with conduit and pipes that are mounted to a wall or other flat surface. The thing that was really cool about the bandsaw was its construction; built with real-world use in mind including things like dropping the saw and other job site abuse. This new saw is designed to really take a hit; to show this, they took one of the saws we had been using and dropped it from head height to the concrete floor right on the blade guard; the tool bounced and was no worse for wear, which was evident when she started it right up again. For the few contractors who were convinced that they might break it eventually, they made it with super easy-to-replace parts.
Next, we took a look at the new line of angle grinders. They come in many handle and switch (paddle or sliding) configurations that can accommodate any user and job site situation. We used the grinders to smooth out welds, cut Unistrut, and of course, make sparks fly! The last part of this session covered the new line of Shockwave impact bits and accessories.
While we didn’t get to test these new bits out immediately (that came later), we were given a first hand glimpse of what is to come and where they are going with the product line. Rather than just redesigning Philips bits, Milwaukee is extending the Shockwave line to a comprehensive bit solution for all areas. We got a glimpse of their proposed retail line-up for the accessories and it was more than a little impressive.
Testing & Measurement Tools
The next session covered Testing and Measuring which is a completely new area of tools for Milwaukee. It was evident, by our observation, that these tools were really unique. They fit specific needs, and in several cases, did things that have not been done before. Milwaukee’s design philosophy is that they start with the end user in mind and really take into account what they are trying to accomplish with the tool. We could appreciate this in the small details, like the unique white-on-black displays (yeah, that might make you think old fashioned when it comes to TV’s) that actually are super easy to read in both bright sunlight and in a pitch black room (we tried both in the session).
While many of these tools are targeted at the electrical industry, they have some that are tweaked for the HVAC installers’ needs along with some that are pretty universal like their M12 Sub-Scanner Detection Tool and the remote temperature sensor.
We had the opportunity to try each of the new tools and we started with the M12 Clamp-Gun Clamp Meter. The pistol grip just makes sense for a few reasons. For starters, it is easy to operate the meter’s jaws by pulling the trigger. The handle makes it easy to hang on to the tool and actually keeps your hands out of the way so that settings don’t get changed and the display is always in clear view.
One of the coolest tools in this session was the M12 Sub-Scanner Detection Tool. This tool has the ability to look deep inside a wall, ceiling or floor (including concrete) to find hidden objects. On the test concrete slab, we were able to detect 1/2″ rebar 6″ below the surface with pinpoint accuracy. In the test walls, we were able to see through both sheet rock and plywood to find the wood and metal studs on the other side.
Also, the tool has the ability to distinguish between ferrous and non-ferrous metals and will detect things like PVC pipe too! Some of the other tools we used were digital multimeters, fork meters, clamp meters, non contact voltage detectors, and remote temperature detectors. Some of these tools used regular batteries but five were based on the M12 battery platform. With the success of the M12 system, these tools will be a welcomed addition and there is word that after these tools launch in August that there might be industry-specific combo kits put together, combining various tools in a package deal.
New Lithium Ion M12/M18/V28 Tools
Our next session covered the M12, M18 and V28 lines of Lithium Ion powered tools in more detail. Each and every tool we examined covered a specific need in the industry it was designed to work in. The M12 line is designed for portability, the M18 for performance, and the V28 line for power. Rather than a blanket approach, where a tool is invented and then applied to certain tasks, these tools start the other way around.
For example, rather than take an impact driver and have to put an adapter in the chuck to fit your bit, they have impact drivers with the correct chucks in place that will work for your specific needs, i.e. for those that use 1/4″ hex bits there are the quick change chucks, for those that need 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″ and even 3/4″ square drives, they have those available in both the slip ring and detent configurations. We started out with the M12 product line where each new tool was demonstrated and passed around the room for us to check out further.
When they were talking about the LED lights that are used in the tools, they showed us how durable the LED is and demonstrated how tough their tools were by throwing the new M12 LED Work Light across the room to the back wall where it bounced around and never broke or got damaged; unknown to us, this was one of the tools they included in our gift pack!
What makes the M12 line so interesting is how compact and powerful the tools are and the wide variety of applications they cover. Some of the interesting and upcoming M12 tools include a, 2″ plastic pipe cutter, a job site radio, an M12 2-Beam Plumb Laser, and of course the test and measuring tools we already checked out. The M18 line is one of the fastest growing product lines for Milwaukee with many new tools that will be introduced soon. In addition to their regular impact drivers, there is a complete line of cordless impact wrenches in 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″ and 3/4″ square drives.
All these features, incredible power and torque are packed into compact bodies. Keep an eye out for a new featured packed cordless jigsaw, a compact cutoff grinder, two different LED Work Lights, and a universal job site radio that will be able to use any and all of the battery types. The V28 line is for the power-hungry that demands long run times and has extreme duty situations. Soon to be launched is a line of impact wrenches in various chuck configurations and a new hammer drill that will be the most powerful battery-powered drill offered (not just from Milwaukee but any manufacturer).
Integrated into all the cordless tools is digital power management. This provides overload protection that shuts the tool down when over-worked. You get temperature management for the battery pack and motor so both last longer. Finally, individual cell monitoring and discharge protection keep the battery from over-discharging past the acceptable level. The overload protection is also quite intelligent and simply requires the user to depress the trigger again to start the tool back up.
One of my favorite features is the fuel gauge integrated on all the M18 and V28 Batteries and integrated into the tools of the M12 lines. To round out this session we also had some discussions about the lithium-ion battery technology that Milwaukee uses and has pioneered and how the new frameless motors have allowed more power, better efficiency, and smaller size in their product lines.
Our last round was what they called the Cordless Hands-on Session and so it was. In a large room, Milwaukee set up various stations set up with different scenarios, materials and tools for us to try out. To start off, we went to the drilling station where we tried different drills with Milwaukee bits in wood, concrete, and metal. We experienced first-hand how the XC batteries provide more power (not just longer run-time) over the regular duty batteries. For the particular drill we were using, the XC battery provided 100 in-lbs more torque when used over the regular duty battery.
In another station, we were given the opportunity to use all of the various M12, M18, and V28 impact drivers and wrenches. We used the V28 impact wrench to tighten and loosen large bolts like what would be encountered in heavy steel beam construction. For tightening some pipe flanges and connections, we tried out a few of the M18 impact wrenches. For some lighter-weight work like metal roofing, decking, and metal siding we used M12 and M18 impact drivers.
By using an M18 impact wrench and the new self-feeding wood boring bit, we were able to quickly blast a 1″ hole through a telephone pole without any resistance. In addition to the drills and drivers, we also had a chance at cutting both copper and plastic pipe with the new M12 PVC Shear and M12 Copper Tubing Cutter. The M12 Copper Tubing Cutter has been out on the market for a short time and the M12 PVC Shear is set to come out later this year. It easily cut through 2″ PVC, CPVC, PEX, and even low-pressure hydraulic hose with straight, clean, burr-free, and ready-to-use cuts.
Around the corner from here was the new cordless M18 jig saw and the M12 Hackzall both of which provide great versatility and ease of use. The last tool we tried out was the M12 M-Spector AV where we saw how easy the tool was to use including the new features which allowed the capture of video, audio and still photos to the included 2GB SD card. With just a small hole in a wall, you can quickly check out what is happening inside to easily identify problems. All the tools demonstrated how proficient they worked and we were impressed with how compact and manageable in size the tools were.
We really enjoyed our time with Milwaukee Tools and were very grateful to see the inner workings of the company and how they take ideas all the way from concept to production. The experience certainly gave us a higher level of appreciation for the tools and the manpower that goes into making successful products and bringing them to market quickly. We look forward to reviewing many of these new tools in the upcoming months and can’t wait to test them out in our own environments.