Like so many of our readers, I use power tools of various sorts pretty much daily. However, I never really thought about the technology in my hands. I’ve recently come to finally trust a cordless driver to do the job, but beyond that, I thought about them as a motor, a switch, and a power source.
The fact is, power tools today are incredible in the strength and battery life they provide. There are features I never realized were possible popping up thanks to technology like microcontrollers and machine learning.
I had an opportunity to talk to a lead engineer with Milwaukee Tool and grilled him on what he found interesting from an engineering standpoint. This was supposed to be a fairly short interview, but to hear him talk about the evolving technology was fascinating.
Follow along and learn a bit as I talk tool tech with Brandon Verbrugge, Sr VP of Cordless Systems and Technology for Milwaukee Tool.
Before we start getting into the real meat of this whole thing, can you tell me a bit of history? How long have you been doing this kind of stuff?
Well, I’ve been in the power tool industry since 1995. I was an intern in college, but that’s when I first started working in the industry. Things were a lot different back then. That’s back in a different generation of power tools. It was before lithium-ion batteries. This was still nickel cadmium based batteries or corded products. It was really before the proliferation of digital microprocessors and the practicality to incorporate them into power tools.
I’m glad you mentioned batteries. That seems to be the sticking point at least in my mind. I’ve kind of always seen cordless power tools as hindered by the batteries, but I think maybe that’s an antiquated view. Can you expand on the battery situation a bit? I understand they’re kind of complex now.
The real big shift in the current era came about as lithium-ion batteries matured to the point that they were ready for power tools. Before that it was nickel cadmium. Nobody liked to use cordless nickel cadmium even though it was great to not have to carry a corded drill around. But even it had limitations to power output. You really couldn’t depend on it to do a whole lot for you besides basic drilling and fastening.
That all changed when Milwaukee Tool invented the technology that allows for the use of lithium-ion batteries in power tools. That’s what started to open the possibility for significantly more power output from products, as well as more features.
Going along with that, there’s a lot of things that you must deal with (from an engineering standpoint) with lithium-ion batteries that you didn’t with previous generations. Previously, you didn’t have to worry so much about the very specific nature of the charge and discharge of the battery cells. You didn’t have to worry so much about the temperature. You didn’t have to worry so much about the specifics on the discharge control. With the introduction of lithium-ion, a digital microprocessor was required to manage all aspects of the battery including charge control, discharge control, and temperature.
Would it be safe to say that the improvements of the battery ushered in this whole generation of microprocessors in power tools?
Yes. I guess you could probably say that it was inevitable. It is true that it coincided with the time when we started to put digital microprocessors into our tools. And that led to us naturally starting to consider: What else can we do to provide user benefit? What else can we do to increase the performance or increase the output for our users?
So shortly after we started to put digital microprocessors into power tools, we started to bring in other features and other functionality. One of those was more complex or more precise motor control and motor development. We started to introduce an electronic clutch so that you could set screws and not strip them out using the electronics to control it, as opposed to a mechanical clutch, which is typically less consistent.
After that, we started to think about the next horizon of power tools. Now that we’ve got a microprocessor that we can do incredible things with, we start to talk about brushless motors. Brushless motors are inherently superior in the same way that lithium ion was superior to nickel cadmium in almost every regard.
So, you have the latest and greatest technology. What is the cutting-edge version of what your power tool technology can do if, for instance, you jammed your drill bit or something similar?
There’s going to be a mechanical reaction as the accessory bites into the material. So, you need to utilize the side handle. However, even with the side handle, you might have times where it just locks up and it locks up so fast it could whip you and hurt your wrist. Some users can suffer major injuries this way.
This is where advanced electronics really help to provide more control. Through electronics engineering, we can use an inertial measurement unit to detect the acceleration of the tool. This helps sense how fast the product is rotating – the tool needs to be able to detect the difference between normal movement and movement that indicates a potential loss of control.
If it’s movement that indicates a potential loss of control, we need to actively brake the motor very rapidly. If you just stop the motor, you still have some reaction. It’s going to coast. I guess you could say it would be like anti-lock braking on your car. If you just stop providing power, you’re still going to keep moving. Whereas you must properly brake to slow down as fast as possible.
At Milwaukee Tool, we’re finding some really interesting ways through new and emerging technology to continue to offer this type of control through electronics. For instance, our newest drill design is the first ever to employ machine learning. We ran literally hundreds of thousands of applications and coded the response from the way a drill is supposed to work as compared to bind-up situations. We then took this huge amount of data and used machine learning to condense it down to an algorithm that can detect when the tool is encountering a situation that is going to be harmful to the user. That algorithm helps shut down the tool’s motor during those situations to prevent over-rotation.
We are employing machine learning in this way because we know that these are the types of features and functions that will provide value to our users.
What is one of the biggest challenges for you right now?
Jobsites are dominated by light equipment that is either powered by a gas engine or from a temporary site electrical supply, often provided by diesel-powered generators via a power cord. A major downside of gas engines is that they emit carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and, in the case of diesel engines, particulate matter. Some of these gases contribute to climate change, and are harmful to workers. We’d love to replace all the gas engines on jobsites. And we’re starting to make huge strides here, as seen with our newest outdoor power equipment and the MX FUEL™ Equipment System.
The challenge is battery density. It’s the same situation that the automotive industry is facing right now. There are essentially two problems. First, making sure we provide the power you need for the job. Second, making sure there’s enough energy storage to do it. Right now, I can engineer a battery that can give you the power to do almost every application that a gas engine does – but the battery charge is the limiting factor. So, we need to figure out, how do we make it last longer? This is why Milwaukee Tool is investing so heavily in motors, electronics, lithium-ion and emerging technologies – so we can give you solutions to rival gas – with the power and run-time you need.
In general, Do you think there will be another big revolution in power tools soon, similar to lithium-ion a decade ago?
I absolutely believe there will be another big revolution, and that it will come in the form of significantly increased power output and energy storage capability to replace additional huge product categories that are currently powered directly by mains power or gas engines. In the same way we look back today and say, ‘Remember NiCd batteries?’ One day soon we will say, ‘Remember when this product needed a gas engine to perform the job?’ Cordless technology is absolutely going to continue to revolutionize. And I can assure you that Milwaukee will be on the forefront in the same way we revolutionized the industry with the introduction of lithium ion and brushless motors.
The power tools of today are vastly more technologically advanced than ever before.