BM INTRODUCED ITS FIRST PERSONAL computer—the 5100—in 1975, but it largely went unnoticed by the average consumer. Why? Because at $8,900 to $19,900, the computer was unaffordable to all but the super-rich or fanatical early adopters. Of course, we all know how the story of the personal computer played out.
Many technology products—such as microwave ovens, VCRs, cellular telephones—follow the same trajectory: They start out too expensive for market penetration until innovation makes them affordable to all. The same can be said of laser measuring tools.
Originally, laser tools were large measuring devices used primarily by land surveyors, highway construction crews, and commercial contractors. Priced in the thousands of dollars, they were well out of the reach of residential builders and contractors. But that has changed.
“Laser tools have come down to the $1,500 range and less,” says Mark A. Gordon, division sales and marketing manager for West Lafayette, Ind.–based CST/ berger, the precision measuring division of The Stanley Works. Gordon says that manufacturers essentially took commercial technology and boiled it down for the contractor market.
But the rush to take the less expensive technology to market backfired, some manufacturers say. When the prices came down, consumers and contractors flocked to the devices, intrigued by the possibility of shooting a straight line to measure distance, calculating the square footage of a room with the push of a button, or generating a level line to hang cabinets. What many of these users found, however, were unreliable products.
“It seems a lot of poorly designed and cheaply made tools were flooding the market,” says Scott Taylor, marketing vice president for Campbell, Calif.–based laser tools manufacturer Zircon. “That sort of slowed down the industry.” Contractor and consumer alike “got disillusioned, so we have to prove ourselves all over again,” he adds.
Another reason some users were disappointed, manufacturers say, is because they chose the wrong product. Laser tools fall into two basic categories: builder grade and consumer grade. The products most relevant to residential builders and contractors are those priced between $40 and perhaps $1,600, says Gordon. This is the lion's share of the market. Though a consumer-grade product might still perform its intended function, it may not be as accurate as a professional-grade tool and is unlikely to withstand the abuse of a jobsite.
Some who are now using builder-grade products are still skeptical of laser tools. It is not unusual to see contractors use laser measuring tools and then verify the results with either a manual tape or a torpedo level. “There is a trust issue there,” says Darren Morris, director of national accounts at CST/berger, “but that speaks to an untapped market. There are a lot of people that are of the mind-set that [laser] tools don't work.”
But laser tools do work, Morris says, and very effectively. CST/berger, which supplies laser tools to the commercial construction market, says that the technology that has trickled down to contractors is very reliable. Consequently, laser sales are on the rebound, the manufacturer says. Tom Scott, manager of electronic tools and lasers at Huntersville, N.C.–based Irwin Industrial Tools, which manufactures the Strait-Line brand of laser products, notes that the company never really experienced a decline. “We have grown steadily over the past three years,” he says. “And we have seen solid levels of satisfaction.”
Steve Maltese, director of marketing at Great Neck Saw Manufacturers, agrees that consumer laser tools can only do so much: “They have fairly limited usefulness. They're for homeowners who want to hang pictures or perform other small duties.” On the other hand, Maltese continues, “On the contractor level, it can set a skyscraper, build a garage, or set a foundation.”
SELF-HELP: The FatMax 5-Beam self-leveling laser emits five independent laser dots that are set at 90 degrees to each other for rapid setup of interior partitioning, shelving, and other internal installation projects, the company says. It can be attached to either a standard or camera tripod, magnetically fixed to a metal surface, or strapped to a pipe or scaffold. Moreover, when it is out of level, the beams blink to alert the user, and a magnetic dampening compensator levels and stabilizes the laser beams. The Stanley Works. 800-782-6539. www.stanleyworks.com.
LINE OF SIGHT: Laser Tape 25 provides the simplest way to take a quick measurement from 2 inches to 50 feet, the manufacturer says. All you do is point the laser at the target, push the “Read” button, and the distance is displayed on an LCD screen in feet, inches, or metric dimensions. The company says the tool has an accuracy of 99.5 percent and is ideal for measuring room dimensions, planning landscape projects, calculating HVAC volume requirements, and purchasing correct lengths of material. Strait-Line. 800-464-7946. www.strait-line.com.
PLUMB JOB: CrossLiner multi-mode laser will do a variety of tasks including level, plumb, and cross line applications. The company says the unit boasts the widest vertical beam angle on the market, an attachment accessory with a 45-degree tilt and swivel range, and bright laser lines. Other features include a gravity self-leveling mechanism that eliminates set-up time and guarantees accuracy, the manufacturer adds. RoboToolz. 650-903-4944. www.robotoolz.com.
PLAY BALL: Despite its futuristic yet playful look, LaserBall 360 is designed for serious work. The blue orb projects a straight laser line in any direction along flat surfaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings. Easy to use, the ball attaches to almost any flat surface with nonmarring, self-adhesive discs. Once users turn on the unit, they can rotate the ball to project either a horizontal or vertical line, as desired, and adjust the ball in its mounting cup to determine the length of the line. The bubble level provides added assurance that lines are level or plumb. Zircon. 800-245-9265. www.zircon.com.
HOLE IN ONE: This laser hole locator is an excellent tool for plumbers and electricians who need to drill successive holes into studs or floor joists, the manufacturer says. Allowing neat and accurate work, the unit has a small locking nut for holes from 7/8 to 3 inches and a large locking nut for holes from 3 ¼ to 4 ¼ inches. The unit works on wood or steel studs. Stabila. 800-869-7460. www.stabila.com.