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The Smartest Tool in the Shed

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These days it seems so-called “smart” technology is everywhere you look. The Internet of Things has ushered in an era where we have the ability to apply digital intelligence to just about anything. This has seen the introduction of “smart” everything, from cars to refrigerators to energy grids. In construction, smart machinery, vehicles and even power tools have started creeping into the industry’s collective subconscious.

The application of such technology instantly links the thing in question to a network, whether it’s a small, localized network or the greater internet itself. Once connected, its capabilities dramatically transform, enabling a whole new level of interactivity with users as it transitions from an inanimate object to a thinking, communicative one.

Imagine a hand tool that knows how many nails it’s hammered or bolts it’s tightened and can tell you whether the work has been performed in accordance with pre-set safety specifications. 

Imagine a hand tool that knows how many nails it’s hammered or bolts it’s tightened and can tell you whether the work has been performed in accordance with pre-set safety specifications. Think of the potential headaches avoided by having connected tools which can communicate the status of their internal workings, gently reminding the user when it’s time for maintenance or in danger of breaking down.

These are the realities of the emerging smart tools revolution, and several major equipment manufacturers have already begun rolling out lines of their own intelligent power tools that could have major implications for construction companies’ safety and efficiency.

Lithium-ion batteries are prized by toolmakers and users alike for their long-lasting energy output and light weight, but they’re easy to break and expensive to replace. DeWalt offers Bluetooth-ready Lithium-ion batteries that pair with the company’s tools and smartphone app, Tool Connect. The battery then remotely sends information about its charge status or whether it’s overheating, giving the user ample warning to give it a rest before risking battery damage.

On the safety front, the app can track whether a tool ends up out of Bluetooth range, and can remotely disable the battery in the event of unauthorized use. Tool Connect also helps contractors keep tabs on the equipment’s location, which is key for staying on schedule. Such connected tools represent a big leap forward for technology that already existed in a more rudimentary fashion.

“Some contractors are trying to use barcode or RFID systems to track tools, but both of those require manual scanning of the tools, tags or stickers,” Jake Olsen, vice president of field engineering for DEWALT told ConstructionExec.

“The DEWALT system automatically uploads the Bluetooth data to the cloud in real time and makes it available to all stakeholders, whether they are in front of a computer or on a mobile device.”

Milwaukee Tool has an app of its own, called One-Key, which is compatible with a line of the toolmaker’s customizable smart tools including a hammer drill, a ratchet, a compact impact wrench, cable cutters and crimpers, according to Construction Dive. Perhaps most interestingly, the tools allow workers to input custom programs, creating preset function parameters that can be saved in the tool’s memory and actually change how the tool performs depending what material it’s working with, preventing accidental over-tightening of bolts or fasteners, for example.

Bosch Power Tools has also gotten into the smart tools game with its line of Bluetooth-connected power tools including cordless drills, an angle grinder and a lamp, according to Construction Dive. Each is customizable using Bosch’s Toolbox app, where users can also tweak settings like precision clutch and kickback control sensitivity. The lamps can be activated remotely, ensuring no one has to haphazardly fumble their way through a darkened job site.

The app can be used to monitor not just where, but how and even whether tools are being used. “Supervisors are very much interested in whether tools are running and where,” Bosch product manager Michael Iezzi told Construction Dive.

Construction firms are always looking for ways to boost productivity and reduce inefficiencies. By augmenting everyday tools with artificial intelligence, those tools, in a way, become a sort of active participant in the project. An analog hammer is an endlessly useful tool, but it can’t tell you what it's done or how it’s feeling. 

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