Enter the Matrix: minimal floor space is needed to vend literally hundreds of unique SKUs. IMAGE: CTMSClick image to enlargeby Kip Hanson

Industrial vending machines bring order to tool crib chaos 

Every shop has one. You drop in a few quarters or give your credit card a quick swipe and out pops a bag of potato chips to accompany the bologna sandwich you’re having for lunch. Yet there’s a new kind of vending machine hitting the shop floor these days, one that delivers much more than stale candy bars and dented cans of pop. They’re called industrial vending systems, and if you’re looking for an easy way to reduce waste and improve profits, they’re the best thing since carbide. 

 

The wrench in the machine
Aparna Jue thinks so. The global product director at Cribmaster, a division of Stanley Black & Decker Inc., she offers a number of reasons why manufacturers of all sizes can benefit from an automated inventory management system. These include always knowing what’s on hand, simplified purchasing, accurate consumption figures, increased security...the list goes on. 

“There’s also compliance,” Jue says. “One example is the aerospace industry, which is routinely audited to make sure that hand tools and other equipment that went into what’s called a FOD (foreign object debris) zone comes back out again, verifying that no one accidentally left a tool in a jet engine. Without an automated system, that level of visibility is very difficult to achieve.”

Most shops are more concerned with keeping better track of their cutting tools than they are about missing wrenches, but the fact remains that vending machines are an excellent way to eliminate the risk of a machine tool sitting idle because you ran out of 12 mm, four flute end mills. 

Vending machines aren’t necessarily a crib replacement, but rather a way to streamline tool management activities. Image: Walter ToolClick image to enlargeJue says vending machines do this and more. Gone are the days of cycle counting everything in the tool crib. Labour costs are reduced, both inside the crib and out. Management gets a firmer grip on operating costs, while the jobs of the purchasing agent and production supervisor just became much easier. 

And the machinists? They never have to sweat over running out of their favourite insert, or worry about getting caught with the extra pack they hid in the bottom of their toolbox. “They just want to do their jobs,” says Jue. “That’s why any tool dispensing system has to be easy to use. It must offer a pleasant user experience and seamless operation. A person should be able to walk up to the device, swipe their badge or scan a job traveler, and get what they need quickly so they can go back to work.”

 

Swipe a badge or scan a job traveler and whatever’s needed is quickly and securely dispensed. IMAGE: Stanley Black and DeckerClick image to enlargeVending variety
Many kinds of vending machines exist. There are auger-style dispensers that look like high-tech versions of the candy machine in the breakroom, suitable for vending packs of carbide inserts, safety glasses, fasteners and other consumables. For large items such as toolholders and vises, a vending machine similar to the lockers you used in gym class so long ago is often the best choice. 

Perhaps the most common is a toolbox-like vending machine, one with programmable lids for each individual section of the drawer. Cole Nedzlek, application engineer at Walter Tools, says this last type of vending machine is typically used for individual (and expensive) cutting tools such as solid carbide drills and drill heads, CBN or PCD inserts, and anything else that a shop wants to track and control. 

Interested? You’re not alone. “We’ve seen a great deal of interest recently as more shops try to reduce operating costs, which often means eliminating or partially automating their tool cribs,” says Nedzlek. “For them, it’s either install vending machines or end up with people having piles and piles of stuff in their toolboxes.”

Nedzlek says the implementation is easy. Customers can either buy the machines outright or lease them on a three-year agreement. As with other suppliers, some level of discount is available to those willing to purchase an agreed upon percentage of product from their vending machine partner; if not, shops can stock and replenish from whomever they like. 

Setup and training takes a day or two, after which the customer is free to configure or reconfigure the machines according to their changing needs. Integration to the shop’s ERP system is possible, although this is not necessarily “part of the deal” and depends in part on what software is being used and what level of data exchange is required. 

 

Better control
Whatever the arrangement, Nedzlek says any level of vending machine control is a big step forward for most shops. Even a basic system is able to track what tools are currently being used, where they are, who’s using them, historical consumption levels, costs and purchasing data, and so on. “Basically anything that you want to track, you can, whether it’s by job, by person, by machine, or by department,” he says. “It’s very flexible.”

If you’re thinking that the 37-tool job you’ve been tasked with setting up has just become a time-sucking, badge-swiping, big-brother-is-watching nightmare, think again. When properly configured, vending machines are able to dispense entire tooling kits with a scan of a job traveler or by entering a few bits of data. And even if the tool dispensing road does take a minute or two longer, who cares? The level of security, control, and information garnered from such an approach easily outweighs the small loss of “grab it from the crib and go” freedom. 

Despite these advantages, industrial vending machines shouldn’t be thought of as tool crib killers, but rather as a way to make cribs more efficient. That’s according to Tim Marlatt, IT and Matrix manager for Commodity and Tool Management Services (CTMS), a business unit of IMC Group. 

 

Keep the crib alive
Marlatt explains that an automated dispenser makes tool crib management both easier and more accountable. It removes the tedium of checking tools into and out of whatever paper-based or Excel-driven system that currently exists. Crib attendants have instant visibility to every tool under their care, while management gains valuable data on tool consumption and costs. 

And for shops that run multiple shifts, some of which may be lightly attended, there’s no longer a need for a Maytag man (or woman) sitting ready at all hours of the night: machine operators can grab their own cutting tools and consumables and usage reports can be easily generated in the morning to disclose who took what, when, why, and where to. 

Yet Marlatt warns that a vending machine initiative shouldn’t be taken lightly. “There needs to be a team in place or at least a champion in the production area to drive it,” he suggests. “If management decides on their own that this is a great idea and then works out a deal with the vendor to install a machine without first achieving consensus from the end users, the results are generally less than desirable.”

Visibility and accountability may be crucial, but industrial vending systems promise something even better—machine uptime. Because machinists know the exact locations of everything needed to keep their CNC equipment operating, there’s no more time lost wandering about looking for things, pulling open drawers, digging through cabinets, and quite possibly stopping by their buddy’s bench to hear about the big fishing trip last weekend. 

“That’s just money going down the tubes,” Marlatt says. “A lot of shop owners and managers might struggle with the price tag, but if you save even an hour a month times five people, which is actually a conservative figure, the return on investment is quite fast. Add that to all the other benefits and it’s very easy to decide in favour of a vending solution.” SMT

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