Technicians are always looking for time-saving tools. They want that tool that will cut time off of the book time. Innovation in hand tool design has lead to many new features that help you do your job faster and easier. The Hand Tools and Specialty Tools categories share some common characteristics.
HAND TOOLS is a term that is a little vague in its origin and its usage. All tools could probably be called hand tools since us humans have to use our hands to use any tool, at one point or another! For the sake of the article and our collective sanity, let’s agree (or disagree) that when I say hand tools, I really mean the family of tools that includes things like screwdrivers, ratchets, wrenches, sockets, pry bars, hammers…you get the idea!
For those of us who spend our days in the marketing and management of tools and their categories, this discussion comes up pretty often. (Sad I know, but true!) “Is that a hand tool? Or is it a specialty tool?”
SPECIALTY TOOLS is a term used to describe any tool that is designed to do one specific job and/or made to work on one specific make/model of vehicle. Just a few quick examples include: Cadillac Northstar water pump tool, VW transaxle hex wrench, valve lifter puller and flywheel turning tool.
In the Palm of Your Hand
Now here is where things get more complicated! Most specialty tools are hand tools, but most hand tools are not specialty tools. (Sounds like a logic problem from high school doesn’t it?)
The good news is what we call tools is far less important than what those tools do — and do for us! Do they make the job easier? Faster? Safer? — With any luck, they will do all three!
The hand tool category has always been the foundation of the tool industry. It also is the point where most technicians begin building their collection of tools. Do you remember your first set of tools? Maybe it was that 39-piece Craftsman socket set, or maybe it started much earlier than that. Did you have one of those plastic tool sets as a child with a hammer, screwdriver and tiny workbench? Do you remember going around the house trying to find things to “repair” with your new tools? (Funny how many of us have similar memories in this industry!)
Just a few years ago, I would have said: “there is nothing new to talk about in the hand tool category. There are no new items and everything is status quo.” That was probably wrong then, and it is definitely wrong now. Things seem to be changing rapidly in this category. We are seeing the emergence of new brands as well as the seeming disappearance of brands we have known and loved for decades. The economic downturn of the last 18 months has accelerated changes, both positive and negative, in the tool industry. Some companies have thrived and flourished on the adversity and challenges of the last 18 months, while others have become overwhelmed as they tried to cope with the issues at hand, and have faltered or failed completely. We’ve heard stories of inventory shortages, disrupted work forces and quality control issues.
The good news is that for each story we hear of companies in trouble, there are just as many stories of new companies introducing great products. We also are seeing long-time suppliers stepping up and jumping into the hand tool arena with both feet.
For many years, there were few new innovations or designs of hand tools. The most we saw was a variation or two on an old theme. Suppliers would bring us the same old tool with a new kit configuration or maybe a different finish, a new way of marking sizes, a different kind of case — all good things, but not really new or groundbreaking changes.
Slowly over the last couple of years, we’ve been seeing this start to change. We believe, at least in part, these changes can be attributed to YOU the professional technician.
The most proactive and forward-thinking companies use a process called VOC — Voice of Customer. This may be a fancy name for a simple idea, but good companies, the ones most likely to succeed, have realized that the best way to get a tool right is to ask the person who is going to use it (not an engineer who has never opened a hood or busted a knuckle!). By bringing groups of technicians together from all over the U.S. and the world, companies are gathering critical information about what you as a professional technician need and want in hand tools. These VOC events are held with the express purpose of finding out what is good and bad about tools and what you want to see changed.
If you ever find yourself invited to participate in an event like this, take it! You will learn a lot and be helping out the entire industry and specifically professional technicians just like you.
Another reason for changes in the design and quality of hand tools available is the increasing complexity of vehicles today. You face this every day in your job, and as cars become more and more complex, compact and difficult to work on, the need for different hand tools arises.
We are seeing a large number of changes in the design of basic wrench products because of the need for greater access, finer control and more strength. We also are seeing lots of new wrench styles featuring different shapes, new head designs, different types of offsets and new finishes. All of these changes add up to better products that last longer and provide you with the service you need to get your job done.
Isn’t that Special?
The Specialty Tool category seems to grow exponentially every year. Every new model year release of vehicles requires the addition of hundreds of specialty tools to fix those vehicles. This creates the beginning of a trickle-down effect. In the beginning, the only people who had access to these new whiz-bang tools were dealership technicians. This has been the way of the automotive world since the days of Mr. Ford and Mr. Whitney. (Based on the logic that owners of new cars under warranty only took their cars to the dealership.)
The dealer would get the new tools and the rest of you on the “outside” were left to fend for yourselves. Usually a few years after a specialty tool was introduced for a new model car, it would show up for sale to the general public. Little by little, the life cycle of specialty tools is changing — in part to the same economic down turn I spoke about earlier. As the car manufacturers have lived through the recession of the last 18 months, they did so by cutting a lot of technician jobs, as I am sure some of you are painfully aware. So now we have more dealer-trained technicians working in independent repair facilities. Add to this the fact that many car owners choose to take their vehicles to independent repair facilities for maintenance, upgrade work and repairs, and the need for specialty tools for the general trade increases every year.
The good news is that some of the OEMs are releasing tool information earlier to the aftermarket. This allows manufacturers to provide you with the same tools that the dealerships get when the new car comes out. This also speeds up the process of manufacturers making their own versions of the special tools needed to fix today’s new cars.
Specialty tools can make the difference between making money and losing money on any given job you do. Like many of the tools you buy, you may not need that specialty tool for days or weeks at a time, but it can pay for itself in a single use.
While all tool buying requires you to evaluate the quality of the tool, specialty tools, more so than other categories, require that you consider the quality, the brand, material and construction of the tool. By definition, specialty tools do a “special job.” Many times this puts a large amount of stress on the tool and/or demands perfect fit and sizing in order to work.
Be cautious when buying specialty tools. There are several manufacturers that make specialty tools and have done so for many years. These companies tend to offer the best value, quality and durability on these types of tools. These same companies look to professional technicians for tool ideas, and in some cases, may actually pay you for your ideas. This can be a great way for you to give back to the trade and make a few dollars in the process!