Keeping track of tools

Sept. 22, 2009
Retrieval — from pegboard to electronic chips

The storage of tools has not changed drastically since the invention of the pegboard. In fact, pegboard offers three distinct advantages. Which are often overlooked.

  • High visibility — are the tools in the designated spot?
  • Ease of inventory — which tools are out of stock in the tool area?
  • Can we function optimally with our current tool inventory?

As a young man my father taught me to use pegboard with hooks for the everyday tools.

He made it easier for me by painting an outline of each major tool in black on the white pegboard system. If the tool was missing the black outline reminds you to put it back in the correct place.

Traditional retrieval is a constant problem with any group of individuals who use tools. Whether working on high performance hot rods, performing life-saving surgery, or repairing a 172 or a 747, traditional tool retrieval is required constantly.

The retrieval of tools historically has changed drastically with the use of specific markings, etchings, ownership marks, bar codes, ID numbers, and RFID chips.

Carriers, as well as FBOs and repair stations, use systems from sophisticated to archaic to track, manage, and retrieve their tools.

Many tools may be substituted by less expensive but general purpose tools. An example is the Freight Harbor exhaust pipe cutter often used in a pinch to cut the oil filters to perform an internal exam of the filter, filter media, oil, and other parts. This is especially important, if metal filings or scrapings are present. Metal filings or scrapings obviously indicate metal fatigue or unexpected damage to an interior surface of the engine. “While the exhaust pipe cutter from Freight Harbor is relatively inexpensive it does not appear to have the staying power from repeated usage that a traditional oil filter cutter has proven,” states a veteran AMT with 17 years experience.

Another industry expert states that the relatively low cost of affixing a specialized label, mark, or chip to a relatively expensive tool can easily pay for its use in the savings of just a few tools.

Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA), West Mifflin, PA, uses a bar-code system for each tool. The tools have an ID number, school name, and the students scan their ID badges to obtain and sign out the required tools. When the tools are returned the student is credited with the return, therefore the management always is aware of the last borrower of each specific tool.

Tools from the piston ring and valve spring compressor to closed end and socket wrenches are distributed from the central toolroom to the various parts from the repaint center, engine repair, composite fabrication, to avionics testing and repair center. PIA offers a comprehensive composite course which requires both specialized tools and special techniques. The return of those items is mandatory for the next individuals to learn and perform the tasks.

Show us your etchings!
For decades, tools have been identified by cutting or burnishing the company name and department into the body or handle of every tool. It is a worthy start but a mere Stone Age process in a high-tech world.

Etch-O-Matic, one popular brand of permanent metal marking systems, is relatively easy to use. This system marks tools to the depth of .0001 to .006 inch and does not cause stress in the metal. Etch-O-Matic meets all military, commercial aircraft, NASA, U.S. government, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and industrial specifications.

Etching permanently identifies the owner but not the current location. And simple labels may be removed or altered not serving as a permanent ID.

Former Lockheed and Boeing AMT professional Chris McDermott often stated, “The best tools are the best investment an AMT professional can make for his career. Even the tool chest you choose that lasts is a better investment that a cheaper one which requires replacement!”

Asset tracking using chips
RFID technology or RFID chips may be the wave of the future. The current cost per chip is less than 10 cents. In 2008, more than a dozen newly designed passive UHF RFID tags emerged to be specifically mounted on metal. Because the majority of tools used are metal that is a distinct advantage. The advantage of the passive UHF RFID chip requires no power source and is activated when the tool is near the receiver.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) published updates in June 2009 to Spec 2000 that covers the data regarding automatic data-capture devices, including RFID radio frequency identification tags.

The RFID chips offer low-memory 512 bits and high-memory 4 to 64 kilobytes.

As the newer Mu chips are perfected, the size and cost should remain the same or become lower. The Mu chips are substantially smaller; however, Mu chips currently offer a smaller range or area for tracking and that is a disadvantage in large hangars and manufacturing plants.

Boeing integrated the use of RFID technology to help reduce cost and to keep track of inventory and assets. And Airbus indicates it has distributed RFID requirements as part of its technical specs for suppliers worldwide for the aircraft currently under development.

In many smaller facilities tools and tool management is an afterthought. However, tools are always a major investment and an easily traceable asset which should be treated as gold.

The tools equipped with etching and RFID tags have several advantages over the traditional label and bar-coded tools.

  • First, security is enhanced if tools are carried through a gate or exit and an alarm may be triggered.
  • Second, permanency of the marking is ensured and readily verifiable.
  • The highly sophisticated bar codes, etching, and RFID chips ensure less tools will leave a facility than facilities which don’t use the latest techniques.

The combination of etched and RFID tags tools should improve traditional retrieval of the tool at any step in a repair cycle.

Craig J. “Buzz” Conroy of Gibsonia, PA, holds a M.S. in Aviation Leadership and ­frequently speaks to aviation and business conferences on related topics. He was an eyewitness to history by arriving at Somerset, PA, one hour and nine minutes after the Flight 93 crash on 9-11-2001. Conroy covered the incident for two national TV news channels. To contact him call (724) 443-6876 or (800) 344-1492 or email ­[email protected].