Snap-on system tracks tools, prevents FOD

 - February 24, 2011, 10:10 AM

Most mechanics are familiar with the Snap-on tool truck that arrives weekly at the maintenance hangar, dispensing not only shiny and traditional wrenches and sockets but also technologically sophisticated products to help facilitate aircraft maintenance. The ultimate drool-worthy Snap-on product isn't a tool but the box that holds the tools, and Snap-on Industrial has introduced a new version of the standard toolbox that helps prevent foreign object debris (FOD), keeps tools organized, tracks broken tools and calibration due dates and ultimately improves efficiency.

The new ATC 5 tool-control system combines software, a keyless entry system, foam cutout toolbox drawer liners and digital image capture devices inside the toolbox to help keep track of tools. What makes ATC 5 unique is that it allows mechanics to work at the same speed and doesn’t force them to adopt a new technique when removing and replacing tools. “It’s really an asset-management system,” said Patrick McDevitt, Snap-on manager of business development.

Some tool-control systems (and Snap-on also offers this type) use foam cutout liners with bar codes affixed to the foam next to each tool. Every time the mechanic removes a tool, he has to scan the bar code sticker. Stickers wear off, and scanning each tool in and out adds complexity and could motivate mechanics in a hurry to cheat by removing tools without scanning the barcode. Also, the toolbox doesn’t know when a tool is missing, broken or replaced in the wrong cutout.

Toolbox Security

The ATC 5 tool-control system eliminates all those problems. Currently available in a 36- or 54-inch toolbox in 11 different colors, ATC 5 adds technology to the toolbox to keep tools under tight control. Installed inside the toolbox are four to six five-megapixel digital cameras and an optical scanning system with mirrors that allows the cameras to see any drawer as it is opened and closed. Only one drawer can be opened at a time, preventing the box from tipping over if too many heavy drawers are open. McDevitt demonstrated how quickly he could whip open and slam the drawers closed, and the ATC 5 scanner was still able to do its job, illustrating how the system doesn’t impede mechanics.

To implement ATC 5, the first step is to provide a list of tools so that the foam liners can be cut. The tool outlines are cut with a waterjet in the special foam, which is long-lasting and resistant to chemicals used in maintenance, in the exact shape of the tool. Snap-on would obviously prefer that all the tools are Snap-on products, but it will cut foam for non-Snap-on tools.

The tools and their locations are programmed into the computer housed in the toolbox’s stainless steel work surface. The scanning system stores a baseline master record of each drawer so it knows when tools have been removed and replaced. It does this by comparing the master record with the scanned view of the drawer after tools are removed.

Mounted on top of the work surface is a touch-screen controller that lets users log in and shows tool status and an audit trail. All of the data stored in the toolbox’s computer can also be shared with company administrators over a network either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Anyone can look at the touch screen while tools are out; a yellow color code shows which drawers have empty tool slots, and a list of tools being used and where the job is located is easily displayed.

The toolbox canπt be opened until an authorized mechanic scans a human interface device (HID) proximity badge across the scanner mounted on the front of the box. The HID badge identifies the mechanic as an authorized user and the box unlocks. The administrator can program the software to require the mechanic to indicate which job is being worked and the job location, using the touch screen. That way, if a tool isn't replaced, it is easy to know where to look, say, on an aircraft that is in for a major inspection.

The system also has a voice that announces each tool being removed and replaced, reinforcing what the scanning system is seeing. An audit trail stores up to 15,000 transactions. For lost or broken tools or calibration requirements, the system can be set up to send alerts via e-mail or text message to supervisors. If a tool is broken, the image produced by the toolbox cameras is so clean, according to McDevitt, that it’s easy to spot a broken screwdriver tip. And knowing when and where the tool was used makes it possible to search for the broken tip in the work area.

The toolboxes require 110V/230V AC power for all the ATC 5 features to work. Cost of an ATC 5 toolbox (not including tools) is about $21,000, compared with $6,000 for a similar-sized ordinary Snap-on toolbox. Sikorsky is one of the first to adopt the ATC 5 system at its helicopter manufacturing facilities. There, technicians check out tools into tote bags then check the tools back in at the end of their shifts.

“The FAA is driving this,” said McDevitt, with new safety management system regulations that are currently in the proposal stage. “Our interpretation is that there is going to be a requirement to have tool control.”