On the fence with TMS? Six questions to ask

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By Felix Kanbach

Whether your shop runs five machine tools or 50, you probably already have a tool management system in place, even if you do not use that label.

You may rely on a series of spreadsheets to collect and organize tooling data. Your programmers likely use at least one CAM software to communicate with your CNC machines. Your tooling might be stored on racks or in storage cabinets supplied by a tool integrator.

At first, this home-grown system sufficed for managing your cutting tools. But what happened as the company grew? How much time goes to maintaining databases in multiple systems? Can you really guarantee all the data is accurate? Perhaps most importantly in today’s labor market, does this cobbled-together system hold up in the face of employee turnover or is it contingent on tribal knowledge?

If you don’t like your answers to these questions, it’s time to upgrade to a tool management system (TMS) software that can streamline data from various systems into one, single-source database. This database — think of it as your single source of truth — is the key to reducing tooling costs and minimizing non-value-added work, such as updating different spreadsheets and walking from rack to rack to track down tooling. That means faster setups, higher machine tool productivity and more efficient processes from start to finish. 

Still on the fence? Below are questions to ask yourself and a potential provider as you research tool management software.

ZOLLER offers tiered software packages — bronze, silver and gold — that help shops of all sizes with management of tool data and inventory.

How organized is physical storage and digital data in your shop?

Looking at your tooling inventory, do you know what is on hand at any given point? Picture a screw that is part of a tool assembly. How quickly can a new employee use your current system to locate that screw? With TMS software, it takes seconds to pull up the location and quantity.

A digital twin of a common slot end mill is seen in ZOLLER’s tool management software.

On the digital side, assess how many individual databases the shop maintains. Do you have separate databases for your CAM, simulation and ERP software? How smooth and accurate is the data flow? 

Ultimately, it boils down to this: How much time and money could you save if one database powered other systems downstream? That is the crux of what TMS software provides.

Can you dedicate the resources to successfully deploy tool management?

Embracing a new tool management system involves a philosophy change. Successful implementation requires an in-house champion who understands your shop’s processes and a significant time investment.

On average, most companies need a year to build a functional database that can feed other systems. Once it is established, maintaining that database is not as labor-intensive, but it still
takes time and supervision to ensure correct data is entered.

Do a gut check on whether you can commit the resources required to get TMS off the ground. Companies that skip this step are rarely happy with the results.

What demands does every department have for the software?

Before purchasing new TMS software, evaluate the unique needs of each department. For example, a CAM programmer wants to see available tools and access their digital twins. A tool crib operator, on the other hand, will be more concerned with the physical location of the tools on the shop floor. At the end of the day, the software must meet both specialists’ needs.

To get shop-wide buy-in, consider deploying the software on a single machine tool — the newest one makes for an impressive ROI presentation to management — to fully prove out the concept and gather feedback. This allows potential problems to be addressed early and presents an opportunity to standardize details like tool IDs, naming conventions, descriptions, categories, etc. across departments.

What are your short-term and long-term goals for TMS?

Identifying what you want to accomplish first helps you determine the right software package to achieve that goal. Is your biggest pain point related to storage and not knowing what you have in the shop? Or is it improving your CAM programming with the use of digital twins? Many companies sell tiered software packages to address one or both areas.

But beyond your immediate challenges, sketch out a vision for the shop five years in the future. This brings into focus the best TMS partner for you. Invest with a company that meets your needs right now and can grow with you. Find out how long a company has provided TMS software and how it was developed. TMS software developed in-house, rather than outsourced to a third party, is often easier to upgrade and customize. In-house software also signals more longevity of support for that product.

Along those same lines, learn what kind of investments your TMS provider has made in R&D. Is the company well positioned to support existing products and still introduce new ones? How have product rollouts in areas such as automation and Industry 4.0 fared?

What kind of support structure does a TMS provider offer?

This is one of the most crucial — and often overlooked — factors in purchasing TMS software. Understand exactly what kind of support the company extends before, during and after implementation. Look for a company that can assign a project manager to guide you through elements like network requirements, IT installation, administrative issues, and best practices.

Ideally, your TMS maintenance agreement will include both in-person and remote support. Make sure to find out where those personnel are located to facilitate quick on-site support. 

Some companies go further. For example, ZOLLER offers a dedicated hotline for TMS customers that is staffed by technical support engineers.

Does your TMS software provider give you options for storage?

Depending on your setup, you may want to select a TMS software provider that offers integrated smart storage solutions. If that’s the case, seek out a company with a range of space-saving solutions that prioritize durability, safety, and ergonomics.

If you plan to use existing cabinets, check that the company’s TMS software supports interfaces to those units and your CAM systems. Again, this is an area in which an in-house software development team is a huge plus. SMT

Felix Kanbach is the national service manager for ZOLLER Inc.

Felix Kanbach is the national service manager for ZOLLER Inc., a leading provider of tool presetting, measuring, inspection, tool management and automation solutions with headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kanbach works closely with ZOLLER customers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and manages
the North American support team. 

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