Category Report: Power tools

Li-ion gaining ground, but demand for NiCd still strong

Advancements in battery technology, more efficient tool engineering and ergonomic design have transformed the power tools segment in recent years. But this golden age of development and innovation hasn’t translated into sales growth, because all the major categories are in retreat, according to consumer data from The NPD Group. 

Today’s power tools are generally smaller, yet just as potent; they are also versatile, longer-lasting and more durable. Lithium-ion battery technology improvements, in particular, have enabled manufacturers to develop cordless tools that are smaller and lighter, while maintaining or improving performance.

Perhaps the biggest trend is the one pushing consumers to “value-oriented” products. For instance, NiCd power tools still outsell other battery technologies. “Price is a direct component of this trend,” said Jonathan Patterson, product manager for Handy Hardware Wholesale Inc. “And while the price difference between [Li-ion and NiCd] might be narrowing, costs are still increasing for both. I see end users willing to pay for quality and brand names, but the final price still weighs heavily in their decision-making.”

Christine Potter, director of marketing for DeWalt Cordless Products, agrees there is still significant demand for NiCd batteries, “as they are a very proven job site solution,” she said. DeWalt’s strategy for its 18V line is to offer customers a choice. “All of our 18V tools accept either NiCd or Li-ion, giving our users a lot of flexibility,” she said. 

Derek Vlcko, senior product manager at Porter-Cable, said that as more suppliers enter the lithium-ion market, prices will start to come down. Until then, he doesn’t see a lot of movement in Li-ion products. “We’re not going to see anything ground-breaking,” he said. “For the most part, we have seen incremental changes. It has kind of stabilized.” 

In the 12V category, however, 12V Li-ion has been the fastest-growing segment of professional power tools over the last two years, according to Potter. “With the small size and light weight, many professional users are finding these tools as an ideal complement to their 18V line,” she said. 

Not just battery technology

When it comes to improving run-time, batteries usually get all the credit. However, suppliers say steps have been taken to improve the efficiency of the tools themselves so that the energy from the battery is used more effectively. “A battery is like a gas tank on a car; it is how much fuel you have to work with,” Potter said. “The car’s transmission and motor design greatly impact how efficiently that fuel is used. A tool works the same way. There have been a lot of advancements in engineering simulations, as well as materials that have resulted in our tools’ motors, transmissions, clutches and switches becoming more efficient, thus giving our users more run-time.”

Combo kits growing

Combo kits have been on a steady ascent since debuting in the mid-1990s and now represent a sizable portion of the cordless professional market. DeWalt’s own research shows the average cordless user owns six tools and six batteries and that the combo kit is chosen as the way to first enter a cordless system. “Users value standardizing on a system so that they only need one type of charger on the site, and so that all the batteries are interchangeable should one run out of power,” Potter said. 

Within the Do it Best network, sets are gaining ground, with NiCd leading the way. “The lithium sets I’ve seen growing sales are the smaller two- or three-piece sets, where the NiCd are mainly four or more piece counts,” Patterson said.

While pricing continues to sway the category, features on tools continue to improve. For example, keyless chucks and blade clamps as well as on-board LED lighting have become standard on most professional products. “Attention is constantly given to make sure the tools are comfortable and balanced for our users, as they will spend the entire work day with our products,” Potter said. “This includes focus on areas like grip design, controls and actuators. We also spend time monitoring demographics of the work force and incorporate that data into the designs.”

“Our combo kits are humming,” Vlcko said. “Our two-kit and four-kit combo sets are doing exceptionally well, and both DIYers and professionals are enjoying the versatility of the tools.”

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