Digital tools are essential job site components for any HVAC technician working today. The same may not have been true for every tech even five years ago, but the changing landscape of the tools market has pushed the industry forward.
Digital manifolds, psychrometers, multimeters, and a plethora of other tools have diagnostic capabilities that are in a constant state of evolution and flux.
While not every tool requires firmware, hardware, or software updates, many do. Upgrades become available, problems are fixed, and technician feedback is taken into account in order to ensure digital tools have an extended period of usability.
Manufacturers have the task of bringing advanced digital tools to market and assuring contractors and technicians that they will do everything possible to refine and enhance their products. This can raise a lot of questions for the end users of these tools. How often will hardware need to be updated? Are all tools updated with the same frequency? And how much feedback will they get to provide when it comes to improving these products?
WHEN IS IT NECESSARY?
Gary Lampasona, vice president of sales and marketing, Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc., said the actual process of updating software or firmware within a digital tool can depend on a lot of factors.
“For digital tools, you have firmware, which is embedded in the product itself, and then software on PC or apps on smart devices,” he said. “There is no preset way to do any updates, and we’re constantly on the lookout for changing market conditions and contractor requirements. Those things contribute to the necessity of changing software, firmware, and mobile applications. For example, refrigerant requirements change frequently. We need to have the ability to make needed updates for new refrigerants.”
Uniweld Products Inc.’s SmarTech Digital Manifold utilizes an app rather than traditional firmware updates directly on the device, which Matt Foster, sales executive, believes eases updates on technicians. He said it’s important to make updates as needed, especially with constant changes in refrigeration.
“One thing that is really important is to make sure the app has all of the up-to-date refrigerants that guys might be using in the field,” he said. “We talk to refrigerant companies at trade shows and get the info as soon as possible. Our digital manifold can be easily updated, which is a huge benefit.”
Fieldpiece Instruments Inc. also makes both hardware (tools and test equipment) and software (the Job Link app for mobile devices).
“The tools with internal memories that store data, such as refrigerant tables, will have updates more regularly since new refrigerants are always coming out,” said Russ Harju, product manager, Fieldpiece Instruments. “Other products, such as multimeters, will not need to be updated very often.
“For hardware, we strive to only make updates when there are additional features, such as different refrigerants added to our SMAN digital manifolds,” continued Harju. “Occasionally, we’ll be correcting something that will help improve the user experience, but those updates are rare since our products go through real-world testing before we put them out in the market. We update our Job Link app constantly because it’s an easy automatic update like any smartphone app. We simply push the update, and technicians automatically get a better product.”
According to Rick Wanek, senior product manager, portable HVACR instrumentation, Bacharach Inc., the frequency of updates varies depending on the tool and the manufacturer. “Some tools are very topical and should be updated on a periodic basis or as new information comes to light; otherwise, they lose their utility to the users,” he said. “Others provide more classic information or calculations, which change slowly. These may need to be updated due to changes in look, style, operating systems changes, or other reasons that are less urgent.”
Dave Madden, engineering director, JB Industries, believes that at least two updates occur per year with as many as eight updates, on average, for a product that evolves more frequently.
“Some tools, such as micron gauges, have more of a singular focus — to measure vacuum — compared to a digital manifold, which measures multiple pressures and temperatures and their derivatives: superheat, subcooling, etc.,” said Madden. “Digital manifolds also access many refrigerants that can be added at a later date. Therefore, it is more likely to have updates for a digital manifold than a micron gauge. Too few updates over time could signify a product that is not progressing, but too many may signify a product that was launched prematurely.”
TO UPDATE OR NOT TO UPDATE
Aside from knowing exactly how often these tools are updated, contractors also need to know if they are investing in products that will actually need updates at all.
“Certainly, if the information is not correct or is no longer relevant, the software needs to be updated or deleted,” said Wanek. “When there are improvements to methods, regulation changes, better tools, new data, identified bugs, and other factors affecting the output of the software tool, then an update should be considered. Some things are not crucial and may wait for a certain ‘critical mass’ of changes to accumulate before a change is implemented. Some updates may be more important, simplify things, or provide advantages and drive the software updates.”
Fluke Corp.’s strategy for the Fluke Connect includes weekly updates.
“We’re constantly refining and adding new features,” said Sabari Ram, software product manager, Fluke Corp. “The end users are notified via notifications for the mobile apps. Users can also check the Google Play Store [Android] or the Apple App store [iOS] for app updates. The web app updates are soft updates and need no action from end users.”
Lampasona used Yellow Jacket’s Mantooth digital manifold as an example to describe just how the process of deciding on a hardware upgrade actually works.
“The product was introduced two and a half years ago, set the market on its ear, and was innovative,” said Lampasona. “However, after a period of time, both the hardware and software needed upgrades. It did a lot of things, but contractors wanted to add a vacuum gauge and more data capabilities. We listened to their ideas, and about a year and a half after the product was first was introduced, we added an accessory. The app was improved dramatically to include a lot of what contractors asked for. Many competitors entered the market for digital manifolds, and now we are in a real nice position where we are not second fiddle to anybody.”
LISTEN TO FEEDBACK
As Lampasona highlighted, contractor feedback was a huge part of the process when it came to updates for the Mantooth line, and that type of feedback is essential for manufacturers to improve their product lines.
“Contractors and techs hate hardware changes because that usually means they need a new device,” said Lampasona. “They prefer to see app updates because they’re free and available on their mobile devices. We aren’t always right, but we try to stay one step ahead of those guys at all times.”
“We rely heavily on customer feedback when it comes to adding new features and fixing any issues,” said Ram. “We actively seek feedback from customers on any improvements we make.”
According to Harju, half of the time Fieldpiece Instruments makes updates is because they are seeing where they can improve and the other half is from contractor feedback.
“Software gives lots of flexibility after the initial purchase, so it’s nice when customers see a way for it to improve and give us that feedback, so we can deliver a better product without him having to purchase anything,” he said.
Wanek said listening to contractors is important because they determine the utility of a tool and can provide feedback on ease of use, look, format, and technical issues.
“Many [contractors] are also at the edge of change in the industry and keep us on our toes concerning new standards, regulations, and processes,” he said.
For Madden and the team at JB Industries, contractor feedback is essential at every step of development.
“After the product is launched, we continue to gather feedback even years into a product life cycle,” he said. “Contractors provide crucial information about many different facets of products. Products with upgradable software are viewed as evolving instruments. As a result, these newer app-based products tend to have longer, more useful lives.”
Lampasona said it’s also important to recognize that just because a contractor or technician offers feedback on a product doesn’t always mean it will bring about change.
“Sometimes contractors will say they would like to see a color change to a product or offer up other ideas about a product’s look,” he said. “We love their feedback, but coming to us with cosmetic ideas likely isn’t going to make us give those thoughts much credence.”
Publication date: 6/5/2017