First, these aren’t simply 18V cordless tools with Lithium Ion batteries. These are completely redesigned for usability and durability. Makita’s goal was to reduce weight while keeping the same or better performance, and I’d say they were pretty successful.
Wanting more power isn’t new. This is how Americans buy power tools. Unlike the European market, we want larger numbers. More amps must be a good thing on that recip saw. More Amp Hours must be great on that battery. More torque is the way to buy an impact driver.
Well, in the European market, fewer amps is a sign of efficiency. Work done is the measure of a battery. Torque is a consideration, but there is a limit. Most of the impacts and drills on the market today could break your wrist if you’re careless, so why would you need more power?
So, in keeping with the American tradition of more power (insert Tim the Tool Man laugh here), Makita changed their motors to give more power, but also more control and durability. For those who aren’t familiar with the history of DC motors, allow me to relate that to you.
In the beginning (meaning until the mid 90′s), there were can motors. These were simple, self contained motors that you just replaced as a unit when they failed. They were fine (some manufacturers, especially homeowner grade, still use these), but an entire motor is costly to replace when you’re using it regularly. They do all eventually wear out, you know.
The next step was to give that can motor external brushes and add in a ball bearing instead of a sleeve. This wasn’t until the mid 90′s, but it was a huge improvement. Now, users could replace the brushes without the entire motor needing replaced.
The next step was around 2002 when the 2 piece motor was introduced. This made an armature and a housing that could be replaced individually as well as having ball bearings on each end, although some manufacturers only use a single bearing. Now we’re getting much cheaper to repair.
Finally, the LXT line is Makita’s first line with what is known as a 4 pole motor. On a standard motor, there is a North and a South magnetic pole, so power is generated ever 180 degrees of turn. With a 4 pole, there are 2 North and 2 South, so power can be generated every 90 degrees of turn. This means a motor can be lighter, but you’ll still end up with more power.
Why would big, mean tool toting construction workers care about a couple of pounds of weight? Simple. If you’re driving screws above your head all day, a 4 lb. tool is much more comfortable than a 6 lb. tool. This was a real goal of moving to Lithium for most of the manufacturers, as the Lithium cells were much lighter than Nickel Cadmium or even Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. Add the 4 pole motors I already discussed above and there was a significant weight difference between the LXT and previous 18V offerings from Makita.
Nobody wants to do more work, right? Well, that means you should let the tool do more work for you. But that’s not quite what this means.
How much work can you do in one charge? Well, these new LXT tools do more per chage than a Ni-CD or Ni-MH tool. Now, add to that the fact that they can charge up to 1400 times and you’ve got a battery that does 280% more work than your previous batteries at only a slightly higher cost. Very cool. Very cool indeed.
Makita wasn’t the first to come out with a line of Lithium Ion tools. Milwaukee beat them to the punch, at least in the US. However, Makita took their time to do what they felt was right in creating these tools.
Milwaukee wanted the ultimate in power – rivaling most of their corded tools. That’s why they went with a 28V system. They felt that keeping the weight the same and increasing the power would be the way to best fit the American market. As I said above, we tend to buy based on bigger numbers and not based upon what we really need.
Makita, on the other hand, wanted to make something more on the pracital side and not so much on the ego side. Their 18V system is much ligher and tends to have the power to do most anything that a cordless needs to do.
Milwaukee isn’t alone in this quest for more power. DeWALT has announced that they’re going to be launching a 36V Lithium Ion system. Bosch is going to launch a 32V system. Hitachi and Panasonic both appear to be doing 18V systems. Makita is also going to be bringing out 12V and 14.4V Lithium down the road. It’ll be interesting to see which catches on.
The other note that I made on the engineering side (along with the 4 pole motors and common sense approach) was the charging system. This is what’s really tough with Lithium Ion and, to a lesser extent, Ni-MH (Makita was the only one I know of to do Ni-MH for most of their line world-wide).
Milwaukee has sealed their batteries completely to keep dirt and particles out, which is great for keeping clean contacts. However, to get the best possible charge an even temperature within a set range is required. If the batteries are too hot, they simply wait a bit, then try charging until it gets too hot again, pause, then charge more. This can be rough on the batteries. Cold is equally as hard to charge in, so they normally draw some juice from the battery until it heats up enough that it’ll accept a charge.
Makita, wanting to do things how they saw right, added most of the technology to the charger instead of the battery. Their batteries have an air-channel all the way around, but the ends are sealed to keep contaminants out. This creates for a more even temperature across all batteries, allows them to blow cool or warm air around the batteries for charging, and in general makes for a more common sense approach to batteries. The batteries are what will need replaced, not the chargers, so putting the technology in the charger saves expense when you have to replace the batteries.
The other thing they did was to make the drill / driver a 3 speed. Most tools just have a high / low setting, but this one has a middle speed as well. DeWALT uses a 3 speed on a few of their cordless models, but 2 of the speeds are pretty quick. Makita realized that most of the time you need a different speed to get more torque, so they have a 0 – 300, 0 – 600 , and a 0-1750 setting. That means you can really control the low RPM speeds, but the fast “Drill this little hole” or “Drive this screw” which doesn’t need the control has a setting as well. I thought this was very well planned and implemented.
Makita realized that by lowering the weight, the balance of the tool has changed. They also realized that by not having a “Pod” style battery (where part sticks into the handle of the tool), they could make the grip shape and size change. The result was actually rather nice. I was impressed by the feel of the handle. It seemed very natural and very well balanced. Even when drilling with a 12″ long, 1/2″ bit into the end of a 4×4, it was manageable with one hand. That was a nice change. Using two hands, it worked remarkably fast.
If I didn’t already own the biggest, baddest 18V Makita cordless kit run with 18V Ni-MH batteries and the 18V sliding compound miter that they used to make, I’d be seriously tempted to buy an LXT kit. Even owning that, I still find it tempting. Makita has done a great job of creating these tools, and I’ve got to give them credit on doing it with a very, very good common-sense approach. Now we’ll just have to wait and see if people want the bigger numbers (Voltage) or if they took the right approach for marketing to the US population.
* The opinions expressed here are mine based upon product training I have recieved from our vendors. I am, after all, just a geek.