Tools & Equipment: The Electronic Nail

Those who possess the ability to maintain and repair machines, whether they fly or perform another function, require tools to assist in maintaining these machines. Hand tools, power tools, test equipment, and a myriad of other items support the business of maintaining equipment. Our efficiency in performing maintenance and repair depends on our ability to not only locate the fault, but to quickly repair it using the most efficient means available, which equates to the correct test equipment and tooling.

Many airframe and power plant repairs and test procedures require specific tools to perform these tasks using approved troubleshooting and repair procedures. Those individuals and organizations tasked with the maintenance and repair of machinery and equipment realize that these assets are critical to the operation of the organization. Specialized tools and equipment used to maintain equipment must be functional, readily available and in the case of calibrated tools, be within the designated calibration interval.

The electronic nail in the board

Tool control and storage in large commercial operations is challenging for everyone involved. Functionality, maintaining calibration intervals and tool location are all equally important in assuring assets are available when needed. In recent years many organizations have eliminated the pegboard and hook or the “nail in the board” concept and implemented tool storage lockers to store and control critical tooling and test equipment. A typical inventory may contain laptop computers, used in aircraft trouble shooting, navigation and communication testing equipment, air data testing equipment, multimeters, temp sensing equipment, and simple things such as tire pressure gauges and torque wrenches. These lockers are compact in design and work well in confined areas. One example is the SupplyPro tool storage locker system.

The tool storage locker system is a computer-controlled storage device, which when queried, will provide the user with a list of items contained within the storage unit. The device is usually connected to a larger database via an Internet Protocol (IP) address or telephone line utilizing a modem to communicate data. The operator has entered the product information, the users (aircraft technicians) who are permitted to access the device, and in the case of calibrated tools, the date in which various test sets stored in the cabinet are due for calibration. This information can be viewed by logging on to the provider’s web site.

The procedure in accessing the device goes something like this. The user gains access to the tool storage locker with a user ID and password, or a magnetic stripped access card. Once the user has gained access to the locker, he or she will either select the particular item using prior knowledge of its location, or you can query the menu for the needed item. Once the item has been identified, a tap on the touch screen will open the appropriate door. The user then removes the item from the storage device, closes the door on the empty opening and completes the transaction. The user performs the task which required the specific tool or test equipment item, and returns the device to the locker. During the return transaction, the user will be asked if the device is serviceable and can be used by the next user. If so, the storage unit accepts the item and completes the transaction. This transaction is recorded in the system’s database.

Recording the transaction enables the operator of the device to determine who has used a particular piece of test equipment. If the tool is missing from the locker, the system will provide the operator of the system with the employee identification of the users who have had access to the machine and used that particular item. If the user reports that the device which he previously used is not serviceable (dead battery, damaged, or missing components), the system will lock that device out until the fault is corrected. The recording of the users also allows the operator to track which aircraft the test unit was used on, as this feature is also incorporated into the checkout process. This is particularly beneficial in the case of a test device that is found to have malfunctioned during its use on various aircraft. This allows the operator to repeat tests on specific identified aircraft if needed.

In large organizations, this type of device enables the operator to assure that tools and test equipment are available to the work force. Losses of strayed tools (left in a truck, on a bench, in a toolbox) are curtailed because an electronic record exists of the users, who can be contacted if an item has not been returned. These systems are designed to notify the designated supervisor of the device if an item is not returned in a given period of time via email. As you can imagine, tool loss is severely curtailed due to the operation and procedures incorporated into these monitoring systems. These machines can be compared to the nail in one’s garage where a particular item hangs until needed, one can refer to the device as an “electronic nail,” (the tool’s home spot!). In the case of a system whereby multiple tools of the same kind are needed, multiples are loaded. The system will simply select the next identical tool if the first choice is not available.

These tool storage lockers are used today in many settings such as machine shops for storage of machine tool components, at large organizations to store company radios and scanners carried by employees, at airlines, and in any application imaginable in which tools are needed to perform maintenance, repair, and manufacturing. The tool storage locker boosts efficiency because the “hunt” for the correct tool is eliminated. The electronic program allows the machine to function without a tool crib attendant to check tools in and out of a tool crib. The program also provides control of calibrated tools. These cabinets simply “lock down” an item when it is due for calibration.

Initial response maybe mixed

The presence of the electronic tool storage lockers initially was met with the standard resistance to change that we all experience. Later, after the users became familiar with the lockers, many roadblocks to the performance of their job functions ceased. They found that tools were always available; they were not forgotten in someone’s toolbox that was enjoying a three-day weekend. If a power cord or a connecting hose was missing, the last user was listed on the web site and could be contacted for the missing part. The standard statement given to the supervisor like “I can’t find the test box and can’t perform the job” is eliminated because now that test box and all other specific items critical to the operation are located on the “electronic nail.”

Web-based, electronic-controlled storage systems also include storage cages controlled in the same manner, electronic dispensing machines which dispense batteries, sealants, adhesives, drills bits, end mills, and other consumable items, and individual electronic-controlled drawers which are designated moderate control as the user must enter quantities removed. Cost control is a huge benefit to the implementation of these machines, as the program enables the operator of the system to view usage, internally bill individual departments for material, and control the usage of the product being dispensed. If usage is excessive, the operator can view this usage and replace the product with a higher quality product for example.

These electronic storage lockers are being used by several of the major airlines. One airline at Chicago O’Hare Airport utilizes lockers to store two-way communication radios and scanners used by terminal ramp employees. When a radio is inoperative it is placed back into a machine, identified as unserviceable and cannot be checked out again until repaired. Another airline operating in Minneapolis and Detroit uses vending machines to store critical tooling near the terminal gates, where it is close to the operation and the need. Battery drills, laptop computers, air data testers, and nav-com test sets are placed into the lockers with charging capabilities incorporated in the compartment so the items are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Time savings

Ultimately, this effort saves the most important asset that affects the operation — time. Time is reduced by not traveling to another hangar for test equipment. A technician can quickly remove the test equipment from a storage locker, immediately troubleshoot a delayed airplane, and in an expeditious manner turn the delay into a dispatched aircraft. A lost air data test set was known to have cost an operator a major delay recently, due to the fact the test equipment could not be found. Another unit was ultimately purchased due to the fact that it was critical to the operation of the company. The missing test set was later discovered in an unrelated storage cabinet. This company is now considering the electronic tool storage lockers.

From the point of view of those utilizing these systems, they consider them to be a valuable way of storing and dispensing tools and expendable supplies. My first introduction to the system was a machine shop in Chicago, which utilized lockers, coiled dispensing machines, and medium security machines. The manager of the facility stated that he would not give up the storage system under any circumstances. The financial payback and the efficiency that his organization experienced prompted them to place similar systems in most of their other facilities around the country.

The “electronic nail” concept works. I have shown our system of lockers to many organizations and can honestly say that these machines have benefited our organization. AMT