By Tom Inglesby
After World War II, by 1946, the U.S. automotive industry was finally starting to move from a military production mindset to one more familiar to it, making cars and trucks for civilians. But what they were making was the same product they made in the 1942 model year — why change? Demand was so high that people would buy anything new, even if it looked "old." That started to change as the market became stabilized and the drawing boards in Detroit were filling up with new designs intended to enter the market in 1949.
Ford, the leading car manufacturer in 1948, offered the buyer the same car as 1947 but with a changed parking light — going from rectangular to oval. People noticed there wasn't much new; sales dropped significantly. This was one market where constant change — hopefully for the better — was beginning to be demanded. Later, the industry seemingly overreacted in the mid-fifties when every year brought newer and wilder designs.
So what does that have to do with masonry table saws? The market for table saws has, in the words of one wag, reached the point where making a color change is cause to issue press releases and re-do advertising campaigns. There just doesn't seem to be anything left to invent, to improve or to use to entice buyers from one brand to another.
"This type of a product is a commodity today — we all make basically the same thing with the same functionalities, the same capacities," admits Bruce Coleman, product manager at MultiQuip, Carson, Calif. "We've all begged, borrowed and stolen one another's features to provide the benefits that customers have indicated are important."
So, is there something new in the masonry table saw world? "No, there isn't," Coleman continues. "Well, there is one exception, lightweight units. That's the popular thing today, everybody wants something they can pick up and carry to a job site. I walk trade show floors to try and see what is new in table saws and I don't see anything else other than the obvious and that is companies are providing units with larger cutting capacity and larger horsepower engines to power the larger diamond blades that are required."
Besides portability, the next thing most mason contractors look for is simplicity of design, especially as it relates to the ease of operation, maintenance and support — is it easy to fix things, easy to get parts and replace them, easy to assemble the unit?
Coleman adds, "Another thing is, is it a productive piece of gear? What is its productivity as a piece of construction equipment? Do we provide the power plant options that customers are looking for? Will the electronic signatures work in most homes and job sites? Will the gasoline motors be consistent with what customers want and will they have enough power? Are they productive in how they've been designed to cut the materials that need to be cut?"
That last point can be critical when you look at some of the changes and advancements in the masonry units coming out these days. With new, oversized bricks and different sizes of block, some older saws are no longer capable of cutting the units in one pass. As Coleman says, "We have to make something that matches up to the pavers, bricks and blocks that are made here in America. Why build a machine to cut five inches deep when you really have to cut six inches deep?"
Lastly, we come back to the first issue, contractors are concerned about the table saw's portability. Does it have carrying handles or pockets for forklift movement? One approach, apparently more popular on the West Coast, is to have the table saw mounted on a slide-out tray in a pickup truck bed. (If you remember our coverage of truck accessories in February, this type of equipment access should be familiar.) Coleman says, "We have a lot of major builders in Southern California and that's exactly what they do. They have a truck and they mount the masonry saw on the truck and they take cuts to it versus trying to haul the saw to a job site. Nobody wants to hump around a 250-pound piece of equipment."
He adds, "I think those items are basic and very important to the masonry cutting world. That's what customers are looking for." But he cautions that his comments do have one restriction. "When I say customers, I mean U.S. customers. What we sell in America is not necessarily what's well received in the rest of the world."
There are some obvious differences between U.S. requirements and those in, for example, Europe. When Ford made those 1948 cars, they made the dashboard symmetrical so the same car could have right or left-hand drive. That way, they could be sold in the U.S. and the rest of the left-drive world, as well as in Britain and other right-drive countries. If you think of the table saw as being that dashboard, then you can make the same unit usable in both the U.S. and Europe by switching the power plant.
For example, we know the electric motors in North America are designed to run on 115 Hz current, while in Europe they use 220 Hz. The gasoline engines we know and expect in the U.S. are not the first choice in the European Union (EU) countries, it seems. But even the saws themselves differ in size and blade types.
"In the EU, manufacturers build machines that have 220 as a power source," explains Coleman, "and that means they don't have to have some huge motor on the saw because they get more electric motor force. The EU also takes a different approach to actually cutting masonry products — they are more oriented toward the rail saw, where the cutting head spins a blade and traverses on a rail to cut through the unit. In the U.S., we primarily use a 'cart and wheels' approach where you push something into the blade. That seems to be a very common way they use their construction equipment differently than what we do here. I'm not saying they don't make units like what we have, but I've noticed that as a difference. Can I sell my U.S.-style table saw overseas? Sure, if I get it down to the right price point. Here it's just the opposite. We tend to lean toward a certain design and tend to gravitate toward what is comfortable."
As we experience rising gasoline prices across the U.S., some contractors are looking for alternative power sources for their trucks, site equipment and even table saws. EU countries have long endured high gasoline prices and much of their equipment uses the less costly to run diesel engines. Diesels run longer between service requirements and use an often less expensive fuel. And yes, you can get a diesel engine on a table saw — at least in the rest of the world.
But, as Coleman points out, the problem with diesel is always price. "People sometimes just don't want to deal with the cost of a diesel. My engine suppliers will almost give away a petrol engine because there is so much competition that getting a 5-, 9- or 13-HP engine is relatively affordable. Trying to get an equivalent in a diesel is impossible because of sheer volume. Everyone is jumping around to get the standard issue Honda or Briggs and Stratton engine."
Sounding a lot like the Ford ad extolling the "New & Improved!" parking light change in 1948, some vendors find there are almost no differences in table saws for the two markets. "The biggest difference that I see between the U.S. and EU," says Chuck Hommey, marketing director for Equipment Development Co. (EDCO), Frederick, Md., "is the fact that European table saws are all equipped with large Emergency Stop buttons, and I believe this trend will carry over to the North American market. Other than that, most table saws are fairly similar. We try to differentiate our product line by telling customers that the biggest benefit that an EDCO masonry saw provides is the ability to cut dry and dust-free. EDCO has addressed the issue of harmful dust and silicosis flying through the air with its masonry saw dust-shroud systems. All of EDCO's masonry saws can be equipped with a dust shroud which can be hooked up to a vacuum system to extract airborne dust."
Some of the other functions demanded in Europe might find their way here if masons found a need. "The Europeans are very keen on angle cuts," notes Coleman. "That's where those cutting heads on rails can be rotated to make a nice clean cut on a 45-degree angle. Ours are either going to cut straight down perpendicular to the brick or block, or we've got cutting jigs that enable you to cut on a 45, but you have to apply the jig to the table, then place the product against it. Some guys are very clever and they'll angle the bricks so they can have a beveled edge to it. I've also seen customers use handheld cutoff saws that make incredible patterns, but they have to muscle it around and you would never be able to do that with a straight-cutting table saw."
Since ease of maintenance is a customer requirement, most saw manufacturers see to it that their products are readily accessible for repair and periodic maintenance. As Coleman reports, "We use a powder coating to keep as much corrosion away from the units as possible but even so, you're going to have surface corrosion on certain spindle assemblies. That's not going to affect the usage of the unit. The greatest problem is with the power plant — most of the electric motors that we have are totally enclosed fan motors that have a degree of water resistance — but I'm not saying they're waterproof. These machines are meant to stay out and get beat up, that's what they do."
For gasoline engines, you have to be aware of the care needed, not for the engine itself — most are dependable regardless of the weather or the exposure they receive — but for the fuel. "I don't like leaving a gas engine out in the elements but people do it all year long," complains Coleman. "The thing about gasoline engines in America is not so much the engine, it's the gasoline. Gas has never been worse than it is today. You get bad gas and let it sit in the tank for months on end, and that will really screw up an engine. You get a varnish build-up that will choke the fuel delivery system to death."
In summary, Coleman says, "How much is someone willing to spend to cut a brick in half, and do it time and time again with a certain level of professionalism and longevity. We found out there's very little I can do to that design that's not going to cost an arm and a leg. Customers don't care, they don't want bells or whistles; they just want the obvious. They want the machine to stay out there for years with no hassle and cut all day long. They also want a simple design and to be able to transport it. That's about it."
About the Author
Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.