Upgrading the Tools of the Trade
Contractor Input Key in Developing the Next Generation of Tools
As technology continues to overtake the HVAC industry, the progress is perhaps most evident in the tools of the trade.
“We’re in a very dynamic marketplace,” said Leah Friberg, public relations manager, Fluke Corp.
“Technology and the work environment are both changing very quickly. As tool manufacturers, it’s our job to stay ahead of the changes and create tools that make a difference on the job. That’s the ultimate goal — to create tools that help people do their jobs better.”
Technology is changing the way the tool industry operates.
Chris Carroll, manager, HVAC sales, MasterCool Inc., said the major trend in the tool marketplace concerns electronic measuring and testing tools.
“This category will continue to affect the marketplace going forward as independent instruments evolve into smart tools with multiple functions,” Carroll said. “The expansion of all-in-one smart tools will grant contractors the added benefit of storing data for later retrieval and display. We find that simplicity is critical in this area as contractors attempt to consolidate data accurately. The key is making innovative new technology simple to use.”
As Carroll said, all-in-one tools are gaining steam as contractors look to have as many things in one place at one time. That sentiment was echoed by Alan Sipe, president and general manager, Knipex North America.
“In the HVAC area, multi-tools are growing,” Sipe said. “These are high-quality instruments, nothing you’d get off the TV at midnight.”
And that leads to more contractors and technicians seeking full system analyses with their testing and measuring tools, said Russ Harju, product manager, Fieldpiece Instruments Inc.
“Guys want to look at the whole system all at one time,” Harju said. “They want more data that’s easily discernible. Everybody asks for more data, but they want to be able to look at it in an organized fashion. Looking at the whole system is really what people have been asking for lately.”
Bacharach Inc. is certainly seeing how the digital age is impacting tools, said Kay Wasieleski, vice president of marketing and customer service. She said, as contractor demographics shift, smart devices are influencing the way contractors expect to have information at their fingertips.
“We see a need for on-screen data analysis that is user-friendly and easily interpreted,” she said. “Whether it is simplified instrument diagnostics or data infographics, the more information an instrument can provide on its display, the less that is subject to misinterpretation.”
Hilmor launched a comprehensive line of tools at the 2013 AHR Expo in Dallas. Widely recognized for their cutting-edge capabilities, hilmor representatives said the tools were built to not only meet current demands, but those in the future as well.
“The minute we went live and got ourselves out there, we immediately got feedback and input,” said Emily Bavaro, director of marketing, hilmor. “On our electronic gauge, for example, we purposely built a USB port in the back so that it could be easily upgraded. If the software changes, the tool can be upgraded through a quick website download, email, or through a USB plug-in. We’ve actually already done that by adding refrigerants. We started with 39 refrigerants in the product launch, and we heard from technicians that some of the newer refrigerants replacing R-22, like 407f, were not in there, so we were able to add them in. Making those kinds of constant upgrades and enhancements will hopefully keep us relevant for the technicians.”
Most tool manufacturers greatly value input from contractors when it comes to changes they make to their tool lines.
Flir officials put a great emphasis on contractor input while developing their testing and measuring tools.
“We listened to end users who requested a wide range of features designed to make their electrical and mechanical troubleshooting jobs faster, easier, and safer,” said Flir communications writer Joe LiPetri. “Flir delivered, and the company plans to remain on this course by continuing to develop innovative testing and measuring tools that enhance customers’ performance and productivity.”
For many manufacturers, there’s no better way to get opinions on products than letting the people on the ground use them. MasterCool is one of these companies.
“We work with certified technicians each and every day,” Carroll said. “We have a core group of contractors based throughout the U.S. who work daily with our complete line of products. The technician feedback is essential for both demand and design analysis. In addition, performance measures with regard to durability and overall value are critical.”
Harju said customers traditionally will be apt to “break something really quickly if it’s not a good technology,” and they aren’t afraid to voice their opinions to Fieldpiece, noting that much of the feedback spurs really great ideas.
“A lot of the customers that call us either to complain or suggest improvements, a lot of the time they are basing it off one of our existing products,” Harju said. “We gather as much information as we can and use that in the development of the next version.”
Wasieleski said Bacharach considers contractor input to be the most important voice of the customer.
“Bacharach has a new product suggestion process that formalizes the funnel of feedback on an ongoing basis through various means including warranty card comments, website feedback forms, sales channel input, and occasional customer feedback surveys,” Wasieleski said. “We also have a beta test program for new products as part of our new product development process.”
Prepping for the Future
Research and development is a key contributor to the evolution of industry tools. LiPetri said Flir spends more than $170 million annually on R&D innovation.
“The company also builds its technology portfolio through acquisitions,” LiPetri said. “Flir has acquired numerous companies since it ac-
quired Extech Instruments in 2007. Why is this important? Because one of Flir’s tactics is to acquire, enhance, and integrate acquired products with its existing technologies to create new systems with new capabilities for new markets.”
When it comes to keeping on top of technology in the marketplace, Fluke relies on an ongoing internal dialogue, Friberg said.
“We have many different types of engineers in research and developing, manufacturing, and in the field,” she said, “They’re all part of our ideation process. Leadership in innovation means seeing the need before the need is obvious. If the need isn’t fully defined yet, then how do you spec it, how do you build requirements for it? Our engineers embed themselves in the field and develop prototypes to address the needs they see, and then we test them until we get it right. ”
Although staying on top of technology is a big thing for the tool industry, Sipe believes the current technician shortage will play a big role in the future direction of the tool marketplace.
“We’re all impacted by the lack of young people coming into the trades. Fewer people will be working; thus, fewer tools will be needed. People are going to depend even more on the tools they have,” Sipe said. “If you’re an HVAC guy, the last thing you want is to have a tool fail and have to leave the job site to go to the store. So, the quality of HVAC tools must continue to improve. People are just demanding higher quality instruments.”
As much as manufacturers might try, though, the industry sometimes can go in directions much different than many once thought.
“It’s hard to predict the future in HVAC,” Bavaro said.
But, without a doubt, today’s tools are being built to not only get the job done, but to get it done well.
Publication date: 11/11/2013