Questions to ponder when considering turbine tools

April 1, 1998

Questions to ponder when considering turbine tools

Turbine tools represent a considerable investment — Don't take purchasing them lightly

By John Boyce and Greg Napert

April 1998

Companies that have always been licensed in the past by turbine engine manufacturers to make tools for their engines have always held prices up relatively high. Typically, only one or two vendors provided the tooling, so little competition existed in the marketplace. In the last several years, however, some manufactures have begun to license their tool manufacturing to a wider variety of companies. The result is that prices have been dropping dramatically. Additionally, several tool vendors have seized opportunities to manufacture tooling, whether licensed or not.

Because purchasing turbine tools can be a very expensive endeavor, it warrants looking into all aspects of the purchase, including price, warranty, suitability, performance, and conformance to regulations.

The question of conformance has come up in more than one technician's mind. Is it legal to use tooling that is provided by a manufacturer which is not licensed to make the tooling? Why not use a tool that is half the price and works just as well for the task?

Fortunately or unfortunately, this seems to be a somewhat gray area. There are no particular regulations that point directly to using a specific tool manufacturer as a source for engine specific tooling. Yet, when an engine manufacturer points directly to a tool manufacturer as a supplier of a particular part numbered tool, are you bound to use that tool?

There are no cases in recent history where an FAA inspector has held anyone to a specific tool source. Common sense must prevail here also. If one tool works as good as another, and it accomplishes the mission, then why not use it?

"We're not talking about airworthy parts here," says David Weil, president of Red Barn Machine, Inc. of Eugene, OR, a maker of tools for helicopters. "The mechanic can use Snap-On, Craftsman, Globemaster wrenches . . . It's price driven. Why pay more if you can get them (tools) for five, 10, 25, 50 percent cheaper and you can get the same quality.

"There's no conflict with the regulations. The FARs do not regulate tools; just the parts you put on the aircraft. That's the thing I look at. I don't know of any tools that have to be certified for use on an aircraft."

Weil continues, "Let's say he's using a pressing tool to press a bearing off of a part. He presses the old one off and he presses a new one on. The part fails. Is it the tool's fault? The mechanic's fault? The bearing's fault because he didn't use OEM tools? I don't think so."

According to John Ridings, president of Turbine Tool Corp., "It's kind of a clichŽ, but really the best tool is a well trained mechanic. I think a lot of people try to apply the criteria that applies to the aircraft (FAA PMA, traceability, etc.) on to tools and ground support equipment. I don't know of any tool requirements spelled out in the regulations except for vague references to the use of proper or adequate tooling. It would be like the FAA telling the mechanic to buy a specific brand of wrench such as Craftsman or Snap-On. The buck always stops with the technician using the wrench, not with the wrench itself."

Turbine Tools builds tools for engine manufacturers under license and under contract. It is a licensed manufacturer of engine tooling for AlliedSignal, Lycoming. Ridings stresses that it does not design tools, but instead manufactures them per manufacturer's specifications.

Ridings stresses that today there are many manufacturers who are licensing to many vendors, and the market is becoming much more competitive than, say, ten years ago.

Sources for tooling
Tooling availability is another challenge for technicians. Where you purchase the tools will depend on which engine model you are working on . There are as many vendors of tools are there are engine models.

"It use to be that for Pratt & Whitney engines, you were limited to one source for the tooling, but in the last several years, the company has begun licensing other vendors . . .

The result is a wider range of vendors being licensed and a significant reduction in prices," says Ridings. "In a way, we're in a price war on tools."

The same doesn't hold true with all turbine engine tooling. Many engine manufacturers have maintained the same couple of vendors that they started out with.

As a rule, many of the tool vendors in the industry manufacture licensed as well as non-licensed tools. Many tools in the industry aren't protected as many of the engines are used in the military, and access is available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. Also, Ridings says, "it's difficult to patent a wrench, so many manufacturers don't bother to get patents on these."

Ridings says, "One of the biggest things I warn about when faced with someone telling me they can purchase tooling cheaper somewhere else, is to be sure that the tool you're buying is built to the latest revision. Tooling from time to time has revisions to fix problems — or maybe the engine manufacturer has added a new engine model, and they make a revision that allows the tool to be used with the new model. If you buy an older tool, it may not fit all engine models for that manufacturer. Then again, you may not need that. You may only be working on an older engine. "You get what you pay for," says Ridings.

There are people who sell stuff at half the price I do and I won't play that game. The important things are that the company you're dealing with stands behind their products, has a good warranty, and is very visible in the industry. You don't want to deal with someone who's cutting corners to get at a low price.

"They've got to build the tool to meet the critical dimensions as called for by the engine manufacturers. Not that they have to meet all the dimensions in the print — only those that affect the tools performance. Some examples of acceptable changes to the print are things that improve user comfort, such as a change in handle style, or changing materials on some parts of the tool to lighten it up. Another would be putting an on/off switch on a grinder.

"On the other hand," says Ridings, "It's critical that you have a current print to build a tool. We never reverse engineer tools. It's just not good practice in tool making. If something is made incorrectly to begin with, you don't want to start with something that's incorrect.

Tools are built to tolerances and you don't know what end of the tolerance the tool you're copying is built to, or how tight to hold your tolerances. It's like a photocopy — a copy of a copy of a copy gets grainy and before long it's useless," he explains

"If the tool doesn't meet critical dimensions, it's not going to work — that's the bottom line," says Ridings.