Like in countless other domains, electric tools have moved from the industrial world to the home environment, allowing people to tackle many tasks previously reserved to professionals, such as home improvement, basic car maintenance, pressure washing or gardening.
Few people realize that individual electric power tools have been around for quite a long time. The first power drill, looking unmistakably similar to current models with pistol grip and trigger switch, was launched by the US tool manufacturer Black & Decker in 1916. This drill immediately proved very popular with workers owing to its unique ease of use.
In following years, Black & Decker introduced more power tools featuring the same pistol grip and trigger switch for industrial use.
In Europe other tool manufacturers, such as Bosch, Metabo and Peugeot, followed in Black & Decker's footsteps and launched similar electric tools for the industry in the 1930s.
Observing that many workers were taking their tools home for personal use, Black & Decker, sensing a commercial opportunity, introduced the world's first electric drill for consumers in 1946. It soon followed up with more consumer-oriented electric-powered tools, such as sanders and jigsaws. These proved popular in the US as more and more people took on DIY (do it yourself) to improve their homes or tackle other tasks.
The trend was repeated in Europe where electric tools moved to the consumer market and became increasingly popular among consumers. Japanese manufacturer Makita, a leading player in the professional and DIY power tools markets these days, started manufacturing and exporting power tools in the late 1950s. Many other producers in industrial countries have followed suit and launched electric tools.
As DIY expanded, users needed more tools for different tasks. The main obstacles to the expansion of the market for the occasional and even committed "DIYer" was the price of individual tools, most of it made up of the cost of the electric motor itself. The solution found by manufacturers was to offer drills as driving units and produce attachments that could convert them into other power tools such as circular saws, jigsaws, sanders and other devices, and this at a fraction of the price of separate self-contained units.
Consumer gardening appliances have followed in the footsteps of electric tools. The first electric lawn edgers and hedge trimmers for consumers were marketed in 1957, and the world's first cordless outdoor product, a hedge trimmer, was launched in 1962. The range of garden appliances, corded or cordless, extends from small grass shearers to lawnmowers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, chain saws and more, giving amateur and keen gardeners all the tools they need.
Cutting the cord
Following the pattern observed ever since power tools were launched, the next technological revolution started in the professional environment before winning consumers over.
One of the main drawbacks of corded power tools was, and still is, that they may have to be used in awkward places and where power is not easily available or needs to be switched off. A solution to this vexing problem was found with the introduction of the first battery-operated (cordless) drill in 1961. The manufacturer of this drill was later contracted by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to develop cordless tools for use in the US space programme and to collect samples from the moon's surface.
Leading electric tools manufacturers elsewhere quickly followed suit. As their price dropped, cordless tools – drills and drivers in particular – became quite popular for their convenience, not as full replacements for corded drills initially, owing to the limitations of their batteries and power, but as additional tools to be used for a variety of tasks such as fitting furniture or putting shelves together.
Cordless tools also have the advantage that they don’t need to be connected to the mains, except for recharging. This removes the risk of accidentally cutting through or damaging the power cord.
The major advance in cordless tools was made in battery technology, making possible the production of more powerful tools. Early cordless tools – essentially drills and sanders – used 7,2 V Ni‑Cd (nickel-cadmium) batteries that limited their performance. Batteries are a domain in which the IEC, through its Subcommittee (SC) 21A: Secondary cells and batteries containing alkaline or other non-acid electrolytes, prepares International Standards for many types of batteries, including for portable applications.
Current models of cordless tools and appliances use mainly Li-Ion (lithium-ion) batteries that can provide higher charges, longer run time, less self-discharge and quicker charging than their Ni-Cd equivalent. Furthermore, unlike the latter, they can be recharged at any time and do not suffer from the so-called memory effect, which sees batteries holding less and less charge with time.
Today Li-Ion batteries for cordless tools with power ratings of 18 V or even 36 V are not unusual. They allow the production of a wider range of more powerful tools, from drills and sanders to grinders or even chainsaws to cover the needs of industrial and consumer users.
From attachments to multiple units
In an interesting reversal of the trend observed with early corded electric tools, in which the electric motor itself was the costliest component forcing manufacturers to produce attachments for drills, the most expensive part in today's cordless tools is the battery. Producers now offer individual tools or kits of several tools – for instance, a hammer driver-drill, a circular saw, a jigsaw and an angle grinder, and even garden tools – that all use the same battery pack.
Robots entering the tool market
Domestic tasks outside homes, such as mowing the lawn, scrubbing swimming pools or cleaning gutters are often time-consuming, tedious activities, with the potential to be unsafe. Several manufacturers have developed automated machines that can work outdoors to carry out these chores.
A number of garden appliance manufacturers began launching electric robotic mowers from the mid-1990s. The latest models incorporate a number of sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles such as trees and garden furniture, to recognize boundaries and even to stop operating and return to their charging dock when their battery runs low or if it starts to rain.
Robotic domestic mowers are niche products but their sale has literally exploded in spite of their rather hefty price. They are mature products that have evolved into professional areas such as golf course care or the weeding and edging of commercial sites.
Safety measures are needed for tools that cut – for example, hedge trimmers. They usually require the user to press two contacts simultaneously, often using both hands. If one of the contacts is released, the device stops. Residual current device (RCD) sensors react to changes in the flow of electricity and are managed by IEC SC 23E: Circuit-breakers and similar equipment for household use.
However, dust and water can also harm the tool and put the user at risk. That’s why all new power tools are tested against IEC 60529:2013, which rates their dust and water resistance using the IP (Ingress Protection) Rating code. The standard is prepared by Technical Committee (TC) 70: Degrees of protection provided by enclosures.
The wide range of components and parts used in the production of electric tools and gardening appliances means that a multitude of IEC International Standards have to be followed in the design and manufacturing of such devices.
One IEC TC and one SC in particular are involved in the preparation of International Standards in two areas vital for these appliances: safety and batteries.
As corded or cordless tools or appliances are designed to cut or go through various materials, they may cause serious injuries even in the hands of professional or experienced users.
Therefore, they must be designed to operate safely. It is the responsibility of TC 116: Safety of motor-operated electric tools, to prepare international safety standards for hand-held and transportable motor-operated electric tools and gardening appliances.
As more and more of these tools and appliances use batteries, SC 21A, which prepares Standards for portable batteries among other types, plays an essential role in the development of cordless tools and gardening appliances.
Huge and growing global market
According to a February 2015 report by the Freedonia market research company, “worldwide demand for power tools is forecast to increase 4,8 percent per year through 2018 to USD 32,9 billion”. The main growth areas are set to be cordless power tools owing to “steady improvements in cordless battery technology, such as the adoption of lithium-ion batteries, [which] has increased the power and run time of cordless tools”, and the construction sector, which will boost demand for professional tools, that account for the larger share of global sales of power tools.
As the range, use and adoption of electric tools and gardening appliances are growing constantly, the contribution of the IEC in developing and improving these devices is set to expand, too.