Proven ROI in the tracking of tools, production tooling and fixtures

August 08, 2018 - 10:45am
Proven ROI in the tracking of tools, production tooling and fixtures

For a business owner or manager it’s a frustrating and difficult task to track, manage and keep records on the hand-held tools, production tooling and fixtures, dies and castings that are the lifeblood of your 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:

  • 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 companies 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. The automated tracking and identification technologies consisting of tagged tools, scanners and software, when replacing the pen-and-paper and honor system methods are proven to provide a significant impact on the accuracy, efficiency, and accountability of the tool check-in/check-out process.

During maintenance cycles, nuclear power facilities create “foreign materials exclusion” zones (FME). A portable toolcrib 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 powering up the reactor. To accomplish this level of accountability, a variety of technologies are used but most often, tools are identified with either RFID or bar code. 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 just one instance of powering down the reactor for maintenance.

An automatic ID toolcrib solution in its simplest form is an employee swiping his or her ID card, which logs the worker's identity and then passing the items being checked out through a scan zone that reads the tag on the tool. This setup is similar to using a self-checkout at a retail store. Other options include using vending machines to dispense tools, keeping tools secure while freeing up labor hours since no one needs to man the toolcrib and 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 solution it is critically important to go beyond simply identifying the tool but also to connect 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. Bar coding is one possible solution, but it often limits the ability to take advantage of smart factory technology (which is when machinery and equipment improve processes through automation and self-optimization). Bar codes typically require human interaction and direct line of sight to be scanned. Bar codes can 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 even embedded in tooling. This ties a specific tracking number to each tool throughout its lifecycle and eliminates line of sight requirements and makes the scanning process 10 times more efficient than bar code scanning and greater than 50 times 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 can not only track the output of each workstation but also how much each specific tool had been used so workers would know exactly when it needs to be sharpened. In addition, 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 toolchanger to verify tool choice.

Locating production fixtures can be a time consuming, laborious process. Often they look similar but have minor differences that can have a significant impact on production. Again, deploying a technology-based solution is much better than a pen and paper or tribal knowledge solution. 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, gages and molds and ultimately increase plant efficiency.

A medical device manufacturer needed to ensure not only that the correct gage 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 noncompliant tool was made.

These are just a few of the many ways that automated tracking solutions can impact an operation’s bottom line. At any point that an individual is interacting with, counting or scanning a tool, there are opportunities for value to be captured and efficiencies to be improved.


Related Glossary Terms

  • calibration


    Checking measuring instruments and devices against a master set to ensure that, over time, they have remained dimensionally stable and nominally accurate.

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • fixture


    Device, often made in-house, that holds a specific workpiece. See jig; modular fixturing.

  • inner diameter ( ID)

    inner diameter ( ID)

    Dimension that defines the inside diameter of a cavity or hole. See OD, outer diameter.

  • shaping


    Using a shaper primarily to produce flat surfaces in horizontal, vertical or angular planes. It can also include the machining of curved surfaces, helixes, serrations and special work involving odd and irregular shapes. Often used for prototype or short-run manufacturing to eliminate the need for expensive special tooling or processes.

  • toolchanger


    Carriage or drum attached to a machining center that holds tools until needed; when a tool is needed, the toolchanger inserts the tool into the machine spindle. See automatic toolchanger.


Northern Apex Corp.

Rick Raber has served as Chief Technology Officer at Northern Apex Corp., Fort Wayne, Ind., for 20 years, and has been involved with design and development of manufacturing and field support systems for more than 30 years. Raber leads the Northern Apex engineering team responsible for creating electronic designs and complete RFID/automatic identification solution integration. For more about Northern Apex, visit the company website here.


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