Milwaukee Tool Transforms Itself Into an Innovation Company

Sensors, software, and AI allow the company to offer more advanced, app-connected tools

6 min read
A person operates a smartphone app that connects with Milwaukee Tool hardware

Milwaukee's One-Key mobile app allows users to track, monitor, and secure their tools.

Milwaukee Tool

This is a sponsored article brought to you by Milwaukee Tool.

Back in 2013, Milwaukee Tool embarked on an ambitious new direction for its products by giving their tools wireless connectivity. Initially, the concept was to leverage this wireless connectivity to create an app-driven tool that would control the maximum speed of a cordless drill.

Milwaukee Tool knew that they were introducing something that would require a behavior change in their users. Despite this, if they could get it right, it could transform how their customers do their jobs. Along the way, they changed Milwaukee Tool into an innovation company.

Going Wireless

Steve Matson, Director of Product for Milwaukee Tool One-Key, remembers that a lot of experienced users felt that the introduction of wireless connectivity was just adding a lot of complication to their process. But when they thought about how wireless connectivity could improve their work, they realized it could help them with the huge problem of theft, provide accountability for their products, and enable them to understand where their tools are in their lifecycle.

"There was this huge hunger for wireless connectivity, just not in the way that we had expected", said Matson.

Milwaukee Tool used this end-user feedback and evolved their product to meet its real-world usage.

Milwaukee Tool, of course, realized that wireless connectivity introduced a lot of technical issues that would need to be addressed. Chief among these issues was that in this new wirelessly connected tool the user experience was going to center around One-Key mobile app.

Milwaukee Tool headquarters in Milwaukee, Wis.To meet the current growth in its business, Milwaukee Tool is currently recruiting engineers for its hardware and software teams.Milwaukee Tool

This app-based solution posed a bit of a challenge, for example where a tool had to be serviced or replaced. The engineers had to sort out ways to avoid disrupting how the users experienced the application on the phone side. It was at this point that they knew they had to confront the challenge of digital ownership.

"User accounts had previously never existed in the power tool space," explained Tim Obermann, Engineering Director for Power Tool Technology at Milwaukee Tool. "When you log into your email, of course, you have this common user account experience. We had to make sure our solution worked well with physical objects on the jobsite and how different tradespeople would interact with it."

After taking the developmental approach of bringing early-stage prototypes out to the field to solicit feedback from the users, Milwaukee Tool came up with a solution to embed Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) radios in every One-Key product, which now includes over 60 tools.

Tim Obermann, Engineering Director for Power Tool Technology at Milwaukee Tool.Tim Obermann, Engineering Director for Power Tool Technology at Milwaukee Tool.Milwaukee Tool

This radio provides the One-Key products two things from a wireless perspective. First, it regularly broadcast its status so that it can be picked up by any of the One-Key phones that are running the application. Second, with this radio the phone can connect to the tool. When that connection is established, a wide variety of data can be exchanged with the tool itself.

One of the topline benefits of this wireless exchange of data is the ability to change the way that the tool behaves. Another key use for this data is to collect information about how the tools are being utilized.

This data is particularly useful in quality control and auditing work on the jobsite. For example, with a hydraulic crimping tool that crimps big industrial electrical lugs, the user may want to retrieve all the information to determine whether those crimps were performed correctly.

"The tool's wireless connectivity to the phone app allows that data to find its way up into the cloud and create an automated report for the user," explained Obermann. "The big tenants of the wireless connectivity in our tools are the geo-tracking and security, adaptive features, and data logging."

Artificial Intelligence

While wireless connectivity and user accounts established the foundation of the One-Key product line, over the last few years Milwaukee Tool has begun to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) into its products.

Milwaukee Tool has transitioned from using AI in some light automation applications it was using in is quality assurance processes to where AI now plays a huge role in parsing the location data of its devices.

Previous to applying AI to the parsing of location data, a tool would beacon its information to a phone and giving potentially hundreds of updates in a Wi-Fi connected setting. To keep this data from becoming overwhelming, the system would just provide the last piece of data irrespective of all the other information that had supported it.

By applying AI to this model, it has now become possible to parse all this data and start to provide the user a much more confident prediction of where something is than just the last place it was seen.

"There is an interesting runway in terms of what we can do with the machine learning model when applied to locations," said Matson. "There is a little bit more secret sauce on the horizon as it pertains to tools."

Sensor Technologies

Milwaukee has brought numerous products to market utilizing sensor technologies.

As an example of one such use case, an interesting situation when working with power tools is something called kickback. As a tool rotates, it might bind up and the tool will kickback on the user. With a mechanism that can mitigate that kickback, it's possible to deliver a much higher degree of control when using a tool.

To address this concern, Milwaukee Tool has installed inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors in its tools. While IMU sensors are not novel sensor technologies, the way in which Milwaukee Tool has used them has given the technology a novel application.

Milwaukee Tool developed an algorithm that uses data from the motor drive and motor load to mitigate kickback

To understand what the company has done with its sensor system, you first need to understand what has plagued previous kickback detection systems. These problems with kickback detection systems boil down to the tool detecting a large number of false reports and then shutting of the tool at the wrong moment. For instance, if a user is just working the drill bit back and forth, it may seem like the tool is experiencing some kind of kickback event and shut itself off to remedy it.

What Milwaukee Tool has done is develop an algorithm that marries up the data with the motor drive and the motor load information to determine whether or not the tool binding up causing a kickback.

"We've collected thousands of runs of data to develop an algorithm that can reject false trips. This would not have been possible with using sensor data to make the decision," explained Obermann.

Bringing Product Development In-house

Milwaukee Tool has taken a much different approach to its competitors in developing these technologies by taking ownership of them and developing them in-house. While shipping this development out to other developers leads to shorter development times, Matson argues that by going outside you can lose control of the technology and end up unable to offer a cohesive product suite.

Steve Matson, Director of Product for Milwaukee Tools One-KeySteve Matson, Director of Product for Milwaukee Tools One-Key.Milwaukee Tool

Matson explains that years of understanding its industry has influenced the way that it codes, designs, tests, and develops its products to the point where the company didn't really see a lot gains from going outside the company to develop its products.

"It's much easier to bring a product to market when your tool is just a peripheral in someone else's system," said Matson. "But the downside of that approach is that you lose control of the entire experience and leave it in the hands of somebody else. As a result, you may end up requiring your customer to look at multiple-point solutions to be able to tie their whole system together."

Milwaukee's decision back in 2013 to embed wireless connectivity into its tools and do that development in-house was not only a strategic choice, but was also a necessity defined by their users.

"One mantra that we espouse to everyone who comes on to our team for development is that we make apps for people who don't necessarily see the benefit of an app for their work," said Matson.

The Transformation Into a Data-Driven IoT Leader

When Milwaukee Tool first embarked on its aim of developing a wide range of technologies within their own walls, it was relatively easy to find the designers, engineers, and software developers close to home. But with rapid expansion that is reflected in its double-digit growth for more than a decade, they are now finding that they need to go further afield to find the people they are looking for. In its software development team alone, the number of people has grown from essentially zero in 2013 to a numbering in the hundreds.

Obermann, who had initially taken a job at a much larger engineering firm before joining Milwaukee Tool, understands what attracts designers, engineers and software developers to Milwaukee is the culture and ownership.

"Our new product development process is at a level where a new power tool can be realized both from a hardware and software perspective by just a few engineers," explained Obermann. "When you walk through the offices here at Milwaukee Tool, and you ask an engineer what they're working on, they know exactly how their work fits into our product landscape and how it will improve the jobsite of the future."

To meet the current growth in its business, Milwaukee Tool is now currently recruiting and hiring within these teams.

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