For a business owner or manager, it can be a frustrating and difficult task to track, manage and keep records on handheld tools, production tooling and fixtures, dies, and castings that are the lifeblood of the shop operation. Each category of tool has specific tracking and accounting issues that when addressed have been proven to show a significant return on investment. Challenges addressed with improved tool tracking include:
- Personnel and contractor accountability for an item
- History and traceability of calibration data
- Awareness of shelf life and expiration date issues
- Visibility into the repair and maintenance cycle for parts that are regularly changed
- Enables labor tracking to a specific project or work order
TOOL TRACKING METHODS
Typically most shops handle the tracking of tools by using a simple “check-in/check-out” method: A user logs the tools they are taking (often with pen and paper) and notes when the items are returned. Sometimes a crib or zone manager is responsible for issuing the tools, but often tool issuance is self-service and works on an honor system. Automated tracking and identification technologies, consisting of tagged tools, scanners, and software used to replace the pen-and-paper and honor system, are proven to provide a significant impact on the accuracy, efficiency, and accountability of the tool check-in/check-out process.
During maintenance cycles, for example, nuclear power facilities create “foreign materials exclusion” zones (FME). A portable tool crib is established and every tool that enters the FME zone is recorded. During the worker’s exit from the zone, a reconciliation and cross-check of the tool record occurs to ensure every tool that entered the FME zone was recovered before they power up the reactor. In order to accomplish this level of accountability, a variety of technologies are used, but most often tools are identified with either RFID or barcode. In the event these automatic ID technologies are not practical, a picture of the tool is taken and stored in the database to identify the item. One nuclear facility reported that use of tracking and accountability technology reduced downtime by 60 percent and the return on the investment was within one instance of powering down the reactor for maintenance.
An automatic ID tool crib solution in its simplest form involves an employee swiping their ID card to log their identity and then pass the items they are checking-out through a scan zone that reads the tag on each tool. This setup is very similar to using a self-checkout at a retail store. Other options include using vending machines to dispense the tools, keeping tools secure while freeing up labor hours since no one needs to man the tool crib. This also ensures an accurate record of which employees have checked out which tools.
Methods for tracking CNC and production tooling are similar to those used to track hand tools. To achieve maximum value when implementing a tooling tracking system, it is critically important to go beyond simply identifying the tool by also connecting each tool to its corresponding important data, such as calibration dates and expected life cycles. This makes the data visible and readily accessible by all those charged with the use and monitoring of these tools. One challenge in this area is determining the best way to uniquely identify the tool itself. Barcoding is one possible solution, but it often limits the ability to take advantage of smart factory technology, where machinery and equipment improve processes through automation and self-optimization. Barcodes typically require human interaction and direct line-of-sight to be scanned. They can also easily be rendered undetectable either by wear and tear, or oil and dirt.
A far better option is to use RFID (radio frequency identification). There are several types of RFID tags that can be attached to or embedded in tooling to tie a specific tracking number to each tool throughout its lifecycle and eliminate line-of-sight requirements. This makes the scanning process 10X more efficient than barcode scanning and over 50X more efficient than traditional paper methods. For example, a wood manufacturer needed to track their profile and shaping bits. By embedding an RFID tag inside the tools, they not only track the output of each workstation but also how much each specific tool had been used so that operators would know exactly when it needs to be sharpened. They can also ensure that the right tool was used at the beginning of the process, preventing costly errors and waste. It is even possible to automate that process by simply adding a reader to the tool changer to verify tool choice.
Locating production fixtures can be a time consuming, labor-intensive process. They often look similar, but have minor differences that can have a significant impact on production. Again, deploying a technology-based system is much better than using a pen and paper or tribal knowledge. Adding an advanced form of automatic identification to each fixture and tying that information into a database will minimize the time to locate and identify fixtures, gauges and molds and ultimately increase efficiency for your plant. One medical device manufacturer needed to ensure not only that the correct gauge was being used, but that it was within its calibration use period. By equipping each production operation with automated scanning technologies, they were able to know which tool was being used at any given time and instantly generate an alarm event when an attempt to use a non-compliant tool was made.
These are just a few of the many ways that automated tracking systems can impact a shop’s bottom line. Any point that an individual is interacting with, counting or scanning a tool creates opportunities for value to be captured and efficiencies to be improved.
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