Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2014   by Noelle Stapinsky

Power Play

Air-powered and cordless hand tools offer techs the best of both worlds

Cordless power tool technology has certainly come a long way since its NiCad (Nickel Cadmium) days, but according to Jody Baker, product manager for Matco Tools, there is still room for both pneumatic and cordless technology in a technician’s arsenal. “Air tools aren’t going away any time soon. In focus groups, we’ve found that mechanics still use air [powered tools] 70 per cent of the time, and we have a lot of techs that say ‘when I need power, I reach for my 1/2-inch air gun.’”

What Matco has in its cordless line-up of tools, it also has in a pneumatic version. “The advantage of air over cordless is its small size,” says Baker. “But we’ve been told that if the power is equal they will switch to cordless.”

When it comes to power, Matco released the MT2769, a 1/2-inch impact wrench, in December 2013 that is more powerful than its cordless version. An 18V 3/8-inch cordless impact wrench was debuted in October that Baker says is extremely powerful and considered equivalent to its air-powered version.

Packing a Punch

Indeed, what technicians look for in power tools are torque, ergonomics and something that will fit into tight spaces. Milwaukee Tools has been focused on developing cordless compacts that pack a punch for years now. While cordless tools are convenient, in this case, size does matter. “Our Fuel Program [line] features brushless technology,” says Keith Potts, national trainer for Milwaukee Tool Canada. “We can make the tool smaller because the brush cartridge – which measures about 3/8 in width – is gone. That checks off the box for a tech trying to get in a tight place to loosen something.”

Brushless technology is a little more expensive to manufacture, but rather than having four pieces of carbon scrubbing on copper to create a magnetic field, brushless uses a ring of magnets with a commutator. “When it [the ring] spins, it creates a magnetic field and the stronger the field, the more power you get. In order to tell the commutator how fast to go you have to have an energy source in the battery to do that,” says Potts. “Brush motor technology was good for many years and kept manufacturing prices down, but it lost a lot of energy.”

Using trademarked technology, Milwaukee has developed a communication system called RedLink, which launched a year ago. Potts describes it as “cruise control on your drill or impact wrench.” The battery actually communicates with the charger and the tool. “What happens is – because there’s a circuit board where the brush cartridge used to be – when you hit the trigger a signal goes to the battery demanding a certain amount of power,” he says. “What that means is you don’t have any wasted power from the battery as it’s being used as efficiently as possible.”

Milwaukee’s cordless Fuel platform – M12, M18 and M28 – features its Red Lithium battery technology, which communicates directly with RedLink. And in contrast to the old NiCad technology, the lithium battery doesn’t have a memory. If a full charge is four squares on the power gauge, but it only has two, Potts says, “you can put it on the charger and in 20 minutes it’s charged. That’s awesome, that’s productivity.”

Baker agrees. “What you’re seeing in cordless is a lot of technology upgrades. With lithium ion [batteries] your charge time can be less than an hour. And if you think of your battery like a gas tank, the higher the amp hours means that the battery will have a longer run time. So on the 18V it has four amp hours.” Current Matco cordless tools are delivering 33 per cent more in battery amp hours than a year ago. “The gas tank got bigger,” she adds.

Easier on the Hands

Ergonomics are also a key focus for leading power tool companies. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co. recently added the CP7732 Stubby to its lineup. Its 4.4-inch length allows technicians to reach and operate in confined areas, and marketing communications manager Marvin Spehar says, “To increase ergonomics the forward and reverse control can be set for either the right or left handed mechanics. We strive to incorporate durability, ergonomic design and power into all of our tools.”

Chicago Pneumatic’s CP7748 impact wrench is a powerful price point tool that has an ergonomic rubber grip handle and forward and reverse mechanism. And the CP7759Q is designed for greater comfort to reduce strain, while proving enough power for most applications on the shop floor. This impact wrench is made of a carbon fibre and composite mix to make it lightweight and more durable to withstand shop abuse like being dropped or bumped. “By utilizing the benefits of both composite and carbon fibre the CP7759Q is both lightweight and balanced,” says Spehar.

For Milwaukee, the ergonomics are all in the handle, where the trigger sits between the handle and body of the tool. “For that soft spot between the thumb and the index finger, we took a little out so when you grab the trigger, it’s more comfortable,” says Potts. “All of our wrenches have forward and reverse torque. The most common ones we sell are the M18 Fuel 2762 and 2763… 700-ft. pounds of torque drive in your hand is amazing. And our 1/2-inch weighs only seven pounds and is easy to hold in one hand.”

Baker adds, “You’re always seeing better ergonomics and anti-vibration [being developed] for air tool lines. Whenever we do field-testing and mechanics come back with recommendations, we make those changes. “Our cordless tools have variable speed triggers, which is needed by techs because it’s very controllable.”

Cutting the Hose

While Chicago Pneumatic is known for its long and rich history as an air tool manufacturer – dating back to 1894 – Spehar admits that cordless technology is more convenient with regards to not needing air, “and they offer substantial power. However, air motors are inherently more durable and do not require battery packs, which can limit reaching confined areas. Pneumatic tools are also not affected by external water or dust.”

That said, Spehar says to keep visiting the company’s web site in regards to the company launching a cordless technology.

Interestingly, Milwaukee, which has been focused more on its battery powered lineup than its corded, might shift its focus in coming years to pneumatics and corded tools in order to keep the Milwaukee family of tools full of options, according to Potts.

That’s not to say that battery-powered technology hasn’t met some criticism over the years. Some technicians complain that if a battery completely dies (or meets its cycle limit) it can be more expensive to replace the battery than it is to buy a new tool. “We recognized that and thought that’s ridiculous,” says Potts. “Our batteries have 4,000 cycles… that’s a long life. And we’re very price conscious of that, so you can buy a new battery for $150, where the tool would cost more.”

For new customers, Milwaukee recommends buying a kit with what it calls a Dash 22. “If you’re buying a 2764-22 (dash 22) 1/4-inch impact wrench, it comes with two four amp batteries in the case. And all of the batteries fit everything. So if you have a combo kit – drill, sawzall and impact driver – but just need a wrench, you can do a dash 20, save $150 and just get the tool.”

Matco also offers a universal battery system. “It will be more expensive to buy a cordless kit than an air-powered. But you can buy individual components,” says Baker. “So once you buy a 18V kit, you can use that battery and charger with other Matco tools. It makes it easier for mechanics to buy.”

For technicians, torque is always number one when choosing a hand tool. Baker says, “That’s why we’re always driving to provide customers with more power. But durability and lighter and quieter tools are also important features.”

Power may be important, but many of today’s automotive tools exceed the amount of torque needed for typical applications. That’s why technicians should focus on durability and ergonomics, which will result in a better return on investment through long-term use and reduced strains and potential injury. As Spehar says, “Don’t jump on the power bandwagon. You will be using these tools for many years, so hold the tool, see how it feels and operates, and make sure it’s comfortable.”

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