Tool Management Systems: A real world model with lots of options

Tool Management Systems

A real world model with lots of options

By Emily Refermat

Nothing is worse than wasting time looking for something you know you have. Digging through a pile of tools in search of the right size socket wrench when work is waiting can delay turnover and hurt production, not to mention increase your frustration. It is a waste of valuable time. Plus, without the ability to take a quick inventory, how will you know you've gotten all your tools back from a job?

Leaving a tool behind can be worse than simply lost money and inconvenience, if that tool ends up in a sensitive area of the aircraft and creates FOD you might end up on the NTSB stand. FOD (Foreign Object Damage) is a serious problem in aviation and you don't want to be a cause of it. Damage by tools left inside aircraft is one of the most preventable types of FOD.

"It is very important for all maintenance personnel to understand that a tool control [program] is one of the most important tasks involved in maintaining aircraft," says Mike Branham, an A&P instrumental in the implementation of a tool management system at the Wal-Mart Aviation fleet maintenance facility. "Overall it improves the safety of aircraft and provides an organizational tool for the technician."

Branham explains that Wal-Mart's fleet had been expanding rapidly with the number of mechanics tripling in seven years, not to mention the number of tools needed to maintain it. "As a result of this growth, Wal-Mart felt the need to implement a tool inventory program . . . [as] an added step in keeping our aircraft safe and eliminate one step in the human factor chain," Branham says.

Bob Biggers, regional sales manager for Lista International Corp., also stands behind tool management. "Organization is critical," he says about aviation tools. Biggers explains that without a space for tools, they won't be returned. A successful program must make it easy to "inventory, locate, and . . . return [the tools]."

Beginning the process
So how do you get a tool management system started? Branham advises that the first step is to gain management support. "[You must] convince management that it is essential to the success of the company," Branham says. "By providing a tool inventory system, technicians can save time when completing a work order by quickly taking an inventory of their tools. If a tool is missing it can be recovered quickly and the technician can complete the job in a safe and efficient manner."

Once management is on board the "implementation of a successful tool system is a team effort," Branham says. The mechanics at the Wal-Mart Aviation fleet maintenance facility were apprehensive at first. Many feared there were too many tools to inventory or that the ID on the tools would trace a forgotten tool back to them. "As time passes and the technicians get used to the new system they can see the positive effects of having the system in place," says Branham.

Wal-Mart's specific tool inventory system consists of tools marked with ID and logged with the inspection department, the shadowing of toolboxes, and tool crib special tools.

"We chose this system due to the ease of implementation and the fact that it is simple to maintain," Branham explains. "We did not have a high tool loss but we could see where it had the potential of becoming a problem."

For the implementation process the company supplied mechanics with the equipment needed to ID their tools and the materials to shadow their toolboxes. Then there was the education on how to use the new system, why it was being implemented, and how it benefited them personally. In order to maintain the system each technician is allocated a quarterly allowance.

Be proactive, don't wait for an accident before you get a tool management system. These systems have many different components and Branham offers some possibilities for individualizing your own tool control system.

  • Shadowing toolboxes
  • Maintaining an inventory of tools and performing at least daily checks
  • ID marking the tools (i.e. with any unique symbol, initials, numbers, etc.)
  • Company-owned tools kept in a tool crib (or other controlled environment), inventoried, and signed for by the technician

Shadowing a toolbox
Products to shadow tools come in all varieties. Homemade versions can be made using Styrofoam or similar material. But these materials may not withstand the vigorous work of aviation maintenance. Constant removal and replacement of the tool and petroleum products can quickly erode Styrofoam. High-density foam tends to be more durable. Professional products are even more rugged and usually utilize a contrasting color design. FòmLoc®, specifically, uses a special kind of "resilient closed cell foam rubber" that is impervious to petroleum products and solvents.

Dennis Amoroso of FòmLoc, one of the original designers of the product, explains how it was conceived from frustration with other products. FòmLoc's foam allows you to reach for tools from any angle without unsnapping, unlatching, or unhooking; forms to fit the brand of tool you use; doesn't slide on smooth surfaces (like the wing of a plane); and won't scratch. FòmLoc also includes permanent text on its organizers, detailing what tool should be in a certain spot. When it's inspection time it is very clear when a tool is missing due to the contrasting "shadow" beneath the cutout, and what tool it is by reading the name below the empty space. It's an "interactive tool manger," Amoroso says.

Lista is also coming out with a foam product, but it will be designed as more of a do-it-yourself kit says the aforementioned Biggers. It will consist of two layers in contrasting colors (one plastic and one foam), a utility knife, adhesive, and templates. This kit will make shadowing "a lot more affordable," explains Biggers.

Most shadowing systems are modular and customizable. Companies such as FòmLoc, Cascade Tool & Foam Supply, Stahlwille, Stanley Proto, Snap-on, etc. can make 80 toolbox layouts the same, so inspection from toolbox to toolbox is consistent and efficient. It is also affordable for individual mechanics, especially with a modular design so pieces can be bought one at a time.

Checking tools in and out of the tool crib by a logbook or sign-out sheet and counting tools before and after the start of a shift or work order are both simple and inexpensive ways to increase the accuracy of your inventory and to keep from leaving tools behind. Computers can also be used to track tools. Computer programs commonly use an identification label of some kind on the tool that can be scanned or entered into the computer's tool database. This allows the computer to: identify the tool in the case of ordering a new one, track which tools are used most often, automate the checking of tools in and out, keep an up-to-date tool inventory, etc. Programs such as WALTER's TDM (tool data management) or TDMeasy can include as much as you want (or are willing to pay for). Some programs can also keep track of the calibration of precise measuring equipment to help ensure out-of-calibration tools are not in use.

ID of tools
Laser etching or engraving are both very common ways of marking tools. Most tool management companies also provide service. Etching tools are available for sale; however, with the investment of money, time, and practice you'll have to decide if it's worth marking your tools in-house.

Another choice for marking tools comes from Marking Methods Inc. and is an electro-chemical metal marking, which uses chemicals to mark metals, alloys, and platings permanently. You can even have Marking Methods Inc. do the process for you.

Label makers and labeling tapes are also available, but often aren't as permanent as etching and engraving. Solvents, hydrocarbons, and other chemicals may erode the adhesive on labels causing them to fall off. Look for products that are chemical resistant or attach without adhesive.

A tool management system should be adjusted to best fit the application and need of the facility. Many of the companies carrying tool systems provide customized service to give you exactly what you want and consultants to help you establish your needs. A tool management program is an important part of long-term cost cutting and overall safety. It's a win-win situation for the mechanic, management, and the customer flying on the aircraft.