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A Hero’s Journey: Automating Tooling Management

Andreas Nyberg
By Andreas Nyberg Tool Supply Specialist, Sandvik Coromant
As well as enabling operators to pick and return their tools properly, the software can also manage restocking and maintenance of inventory.

The earliest example of a vending machine dates back to the first century, when the Greek engineer Hero Alexandria created a device that accepted a coin before dispensing holy water to ensure temple worshipers weren’t taking more than their fair share. While vending machines have since increased in sophistication, their principle remains the same: providing streamlined, instant access to a commodity the user requires.

Applying the same principles, tool vending machine software and hardware can enhance a shop floor’s profitability, productivity and sustainability.

In many manufacturing operations, as much as 60% of stock is never used and about 15% of jobs fall behind schedule due to missing tools. What’s more, operators can spend as much as 20% of their time looking for lost tools. These findings, based on Sandvik Coromant’s own research, prove one thing: inadequate analysis of tool logistics drives up business costs.

Even in highly competitive and technically advanced facilities, tool inventory issues often go amiss and the true cost of misplaced tools slips under the radar. But could something as simple as a vending machine prove to be the answer to better tool management?

Less Visibility, Less Productivity

Regardless of size, a machine shop should always be prepared to work quickly and cost effectively. Machining parts for various industries from an ever-growing portfolio of materials requires a wide range of tools at the ready.

Another layer of complexity comes in the form of mass customization, as an increasing number of manufacturers produce unique products at larger scales. Making the right things, at the right time, and getting them where they are needed places even more pressure on machinists to operate to tighter tolerances and with quick-change tooling and workholding strategies. Having access to the right tools, at the right time, is essential.

Plenty can go awry because of poor inventory management. Having little to no visibility of the tools on a shop floor and where those tools are located can result in a facility having too much stock. Alternatively, it could suffer a stockout, where inventory is depleted when a certain tool is most needed. Other unfortunate outcomes include difficulties in measuring tool performance and higher costs for stock management and processing orders. These issues all lead to one, ultimate consequence: machines without the correct tools grind to a halt, and the facility suffers costly but preventable downtime.

Having too much or too little stock is largely a result of human error. If tools aren’t placed back in their correct cabinets and are left scattered across the shop floor, operators simply won’t know whether or not their tool stock is depleting. Sometimes, those working on the shop floor can create overstocks if they’re too keen to use new tools. If an upgraded version of their current tooling system becomes available, for example, manufacturers may automatically switch over to the new option and neglect their current stock of perfectly functioning but slightly older tools.

Inventory Management Goes Digital

Having sufficient hardware, such as tool vending machines, can be a significant step for some manufacturers that lack sufficient physical space to store their tools. However, for fully optimized, digitized tool management, it’s only one step in the right direction. To truly take vending machines to a level that’s far beyond their original water-dispensing capability, machine shops need to equip tool cabinets with an alternative to manual inventory management.

Sandvik Coromant’s CoroPlus Tool Supply brings together tool storage hardware and software to automate many of the common headaches associated with tool management. The software keeps track of each registered tool in the inventory, showing its stock availability, the high-cost areas and which tools have been picked for which machine and by whom.

As well as enabling operators to pick and return tools properly, the software can also manage restocking and maintenance of inventory, as tool usage on the shop floor feeds data to the management and administration element of the software to support cost tracking, job planning and purchasing management.

On a practical level, tool logistics software also controls hardware solutions, which are either open shelves, drawers with lids or spiral-equipped vending machines, depending on the level of control required. The shelves and drawers can hold multiple tool quantities to choose from, whereas the spirals provide access to one tool at a time.

Leaner and Greener

Automation software offers manufacturers an alternative to doing everything manually, avoiding downtime when there’s little time to spare. Because workers can track tool stocks via a tablet or other smart device, then rely on the software to automatically order and replenish that tool stock when needed, purchasing teams are no longer burdened with the unnecessary paper trail created by multiple manual orders.

Because operators always have the tool they need, without having too many of the tools they don’t need, the machines never have to stop running because they’ve run out of tools. And, besides creating a more profitable and productive working environment, good inventory management can help make the machine shop more sustainable.

Automating inventory management means orders are taken from a single, central location rather than from multiple operators, who may place multiple tool orders in a single week. Therefore tool shipments can also be reduced and optimized into a single shipment so that a new batch of tools arrives once a week, rather than every day.

In addition, automated tool supply can enable reconditioning and recycling of used tools. If, as an industry, we continue to consume the world’s limited resources in a non-sustainable way, we will run out of the materials we need to produce solid-carbide tools. Estimated reserves of tungsten, for example, are about 7 million tonnes, or 100 years of consumption. Setting up a workflow that automatically sends used tools for recycling can ease the process toward more sustainable practices for end users.

In addition to more streamlined recycling, inventory management software can ensure customers are offered reconditioned tools instead of brand new ones. Not only are these often half the price of a new tool, reconditioned tools can also allow a single tool to be used three times before it needs to be recycled. Operators can build reconditioning into their tool management process, sending used tools to be reconditioned then returned for reuse.

Like Hero’s invention, today’s vending machines streamline the inventory management process and give users the items they need in a more efficient manner. But they’re also capable of doing much more. Sandvik Coromant finds that users of CoroPlus Tool Supply software can increase their machine usage rate to 95%, compared with 50% if they don’t use inventory management software. Having the right hardware and software in place to manage tools isn’t just about keeping the shop floor neat and tidy. Implementing inventory management software makes the production environment leaner, greener and more cost effective.

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