What’s in Your Toolbox?

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by Kip Hanson

Without a tool management system, your shop is leaving money on the table

Some in the industry claim that tooling accounts for only three per cent on average of the total cost of manufacturing. That’s not very much compared to the big drivers like labour and machine overhead, but it doesn’t give shops permission to be wasteful with their cutting tools. That’s because losing a box of $12 inserts can stop production just as surely as a broken machine spindle, a missing operator, or running out of raw material.

Provided your shop has some sort of tool crib and one or two responsible people to manage it, keeping track of perishable tooling requires little more than a clipboard or an Excel spreadsheet. This approach can quickly get out of hand in larger shops, however, or where shop employees are less concerned about the big picture than they are about their own little corner of the machining universe. For these shops (which, quite frankly, is most of them) only a dedicated tool management system will do.

Right on point
Scared? Don’t be. Magnus Tillman, SecoPoint program manager at Seco Tools LLC, Troy, MI, says 40 to 50 per cent of the North American market has some kind of tool management system, or TMS, in place. “It’s definitely becoming increasingly popular as people realize they need better control over their consumables, especially those with second and third shifts, where the cost of having a human crib attendant available quickly becomes prohibitive.”

Add to that expense the possibility of machine downtime, operators wasting time looking for tools, and expedited shipments due to missing inserts and end mills, and the payback on a TMS is often less than one year. “With a properly implemented TMS, there are no more surprises,” Tillman says. “Everything is always available.”

How does it work? Tillman says the basic functionality of most systems is similar: the operator walks up to the cabinet or vending machine and identifies him or herself by thumbprint, swiping an employee card, or entering a username and password. The system then asks pre-programmed questions such as job operation or cost centre, and which item is needed. Depending on the device model, a drawer opens for manual product removal or the item is automatically dispensed, and the operator either selects the next item or goes back to work.

The system monitors min/max levels on all products, which can range from drills and cutoff tools to gloves or bottles of Loctite. Email notifications can be sent to internal caretakers, the company ERP system, or directly to suppliers for replenishment. If that’s all too high-tech for your shop, paper reports are easily generated describing where and when tools went, and what needs to be ordered.

TMS stations come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This shop has vending machines, cabinets with slide out drawers, and locker-style units for larger items. Image: Seco ToolSeeing clearly
Commodity and Tool Management Services (CTMS), a business unit of IMC Group, is another solution provider offering shops better ways to lower tool costs and improve availability. Tim Marlatt, system implementation expert for the Matrix unit in Canada, says these are both important benefits of TMS, but adds a third: visibility. “A lot of times shops have a good idea what they’re spending each year on tooling, but they can’t break it down by department, shift, job, or operator. TMS makes these details readily available.”

Marlatt says the Matrix TM software is a full-blown inventory management system that is appropriate for shops of all sizes, and adds intelligence to the way tools are used on the shop floor. “For example, we can set up alternate items if there’s a shortage, or direct operators to use re-sharpened or obsolete tools first in the event of a phase out.”

There are also mobile apps available, so that tools can be monitored remotely, as well as management of serialized items and those needing periodic calibration. And as with most systems, Matrix offers advanced functions such as usage history, budgeting, and tool life calculation, and allows the creation of multiple authorization levels, restricting operator access to management functions and ensuring accountability across all levels of the organization.

How much do they cost? The answer depends on the size of the cabinet(s) and level of automation, but some systems start at around $12,000 and can cost up to $40,000 or more. Hire a consultant or software programmer for a few weeks to get your shiny new TMS talking to your CAM system or tool presetter and it might be way more.

Nowhere to go but up
Some tool management systems are capable of far more than dispensing tools and tracking usage, and can readily share data with other shop floor, engineering, and business management software. What’s more, as these systems become smarter, their level of integration to TMS is sure to rise. The question then becomes, which is the master?

TLM users have access to every tool detail and enjoy seamless integration to other shop floor systems. Image: TDM SystemsDan Speidel has a candidate in mind. The sales director for tool data management software developer TDM Systems Inc., Schaumburg, IL, he says the company’s tool lifecycle management (TLM) solution is a software tool that closely mirrors a similar acronym, PLM, or product lifecycle management.

“TLM is the central hub of information where users can see all of the information regarding a tool, fixture, gauge, or equipment,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what department you work in or what your job responsibilities are within the manufacturing process, TLM removes the disparate silos of information that exist in most companies.”

The benefits of such an all-encompassing solution are manifest, says Speidel. Tooling costs are reduced by 10 to 30 per cent, transparency exists between the tool crib, programming, purchasing, and the shop floor, and there’s no longer a need to reinvent the wheel whenever one of these departments needs to update a bit of information or add a new tool.

“It becomes the company’s knowledge base,” he says. “Everything from feed and speed data to manufacturing drawings to operation sheets to spare parts inventory is part of that system. So not only is everyone now working out of the same playbook, but the tribal knowledge goes away. TLM simply makes the entire manufacturing process more efficient.” SMT

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