With pressure on margins unlikely to go away any time soon, contractors are looking more than ever to improve productivity. Steve Menary reviews some of the options in the tools and fixings sector.

There is only so much to be squeezed out of materials suppliers or the labour market, but innovations in tools and fixings offers potential savings for contractors. “There is little doubt that certain combinations of tools and fixings can improve productivity,” admits Mark Grocock, managing director of East Midlands-based Bespoke Drywall.

There have been a number of innovations to aid changing trends in other areas, such as the growth in cold formed steel framing systems that require fixings into concrete and steel.

Using traditional TEK screws, work can be slow and often requires working at height. Hilti has worked with CFSFS manufacturers such as Metsec, Kingspan and Hadley to provide a solution and Hilti’s DX460MX has been used with Horbury, reducing installation time by 65 per cent and the total installation cost by 35 per cent.

Another change has seen more deflection or movement in drywall systems increasingly allowed; layers of plasterboard and wood tend to be placed above the head track and the whole system then fixed to the concrete or steel base.

Most traditional gas-powered tools do not have long enough nails and sufficient power to work on these types of drywall configurations and contractors must seek alternatives. Richard Blain, trade manager for Northern Europe at Hilti, says: “Some contractors revert back to traditional light duty anchors which are slow to install but our Hilti power-actuated DX460MX system will fasten up to 50mm deflection head details. Productivity is significantly increased and time spent working at height is reduced.”

Probably the defining contribution from tools and fixings to productivity has been improved performance, longevity and capacity of cordless power tools. “Can anyone still remember holding a plasterboard sheet in place and fixing it with a hand held screwdriver?” says Kevin Brannigan, marketing manager at Makita UK.

Initially, mains powered drills, planers and grinders improved productivity followed by the introduction of drywall screwdrivers. Makita has been selling drywall screwdrivers since 1980. Mr Brannigan adds: “The percussion and hammer functions were developed for mains tools but there was a new philosophy about to emerge.”

The introduction of cordless tools using NiCad battery cells produced kit with greater drilling power and longer charge life. Power tools go up to 38 volts but the quest has always been to emulate a mains powered AC machine. NiCad still works as an inexpensive cell but with potential downsides over safe disposal and charging limit. Nickel Metal Hydride, Ni-MH, was an improvement but has been surpassed Lithium-ion – or Li-ion.

According to Makita, the high density Li-on cells are 40 per cent lighter than a Ni-MH cell and provide 430 per cent more working capacity during their lifetime.  As a result, cabled tools are frequently being phased out.

“We actually won’t allow the purchase of cabled tools now unless it is a cold cutter. The steady improvement in battery life and weight and recharging times has made the clumsy cabled drywall screw-guns obsolete,” adds Mr Grocock, who sees other benefits from this improved productivity.

He continues: “A perhaps unforeseen advantage of many [new tools] is they also improved safety. As a company we long ago stopped purchasing mains power tools. Our lads will order the tools and we allow them to pay for them over a fixed period. We’re now on third generation Hilti cordless drywall guns which though expensive are at the top of their game. Add to this the magazine which allows the use of collated screws and you have a proper and super-fast tool.”

Collated screws also typically cost more, but the benefits to safety make this worthwhile, says Mr Grocock, who concludes: “At first I resisted the extra cost of collated screws but after seeing how many screws get kicked around on the floor I realised that it actually made good commercial sense. The introduction of nail strips for tools like the GX120, and the gas cartridge replacing the old strip cordite shots increase productivity, reduce waste and greatly improve safety.”

Yet for all these improvements, there is one tool that manufacturers cannot provide. “You still need the ultimate tool,” concludes Mr Grocock. “Quality labour; it’s alright building a partition or ceiling quickly but if it’s in the wrong place, it’s all for nothing.”