Taking Control of Measurement Tool Inventory

An automated asset management system that tracks usage and calibration schedules for measurement tools helps cut costs and improve customer service.
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As quality manager for precision mold manufacturer Oakley Die & Mold, Bob Beltz is no stranger to tolerances measured in the ten-thousandths of an inch. Until recently, however, processes for managing the tools that help verify that precision left room for improvement. With an Axcess 6000 automated inventory management system from Apex Supply Chain Technologies, the shop has gained greater control over its measurement device inventory and streamlined management of widely varying calibration schedules, Beltz reports. Beyond direct time and cost savings, these gains have helped avoid the need for additional labor and accelerated the shop’s ongoing lean journey, adds Jim Goddard, machining and molding manager for parent company The Velocity Group. 

A Cautious, Costly Approach 

Specifically, the system proved critical for achieving the latest step in that journey: ISO 9000 certification, which Oakley earned in October 2014. By that point, this nearly 60-year-old Mason, Ohio, company already enjoyed a good reputation for design, manufacture and repair of plastic injection molds for production and prototype applications alike, as well as contract machining and EDM services. However, despite solid growth, leadership wanted to incorporate more rigorous lean practices to differentiate the company in the eyes of customers, most of which hail from the automotive, lawn and garden, machine tool, medical, and safety industries. Goddard, Beltz and the broader Oakley team considered ISO 9000 certification key to that broader effort.

However, ISO 9000 requires proper documentation of quality management processes, including calibration records for measuring instruments like calipers, micrometers and gages. Calibration schedules for such tools vary widely, Beltz says, typically ranging from once per month to once per year. Lacking a system to track individual schedules, Oakley had been periodically calibrating all 52 tools, regardless of whether they required it. Although this better-safe-than-sorry approach ensured accurate measurements, it wasn’t enough for ISO. It wasn’t very efficient, either, particularly given that some tools (namely, round gages for which the shop lacks a master) must be sent for outside calibration at a cost of $50 to $200 each.  

Oakley also lacked a reliable system for tracking usage of these tools throughout the shop. This risked further inefficiency, Beltz says. For instance, a “missing” tool might turn up in the drawer of an employee from a previous shift. Such cases motivated the shop to purchase the Axcess 6000 system as much or more than the company’s drive to better manage calibration schedules and to meet ISO documentation requirements. “The real cost comes when you don’t have what you need when you need it,” he explains. “When that happens, we can’t shrink our delivery times to what the customer requires. The cost of calibration is negligible compared to that.”

Traceable and Accessible

To date, Oakley has installed four of the Axcess locker systems, which are strategically located to provide point-of-use distribution of tools needed most in any particular area (for instance, mill operators frequently require OD micrometers, whereas the locker closest to the EDM department contains plenty of pin gages). The lockers are intuitive to use, and employees were quick to adapt them into their daily routines, Beltz says. All that’s required to unlock any given cabinet is an approved employee ID, the number of the needed tool and the job number. Employees are expected to check tools back into the system at the end of their shifts.

All of this information—the employee, the tool number, the job number, time of retrieval, time of return—is accessible through software that governs the Axcess systems, Trajectory Cloud. In addition to a flow of real-time information, the system has been set up to provide the information managers want to see, when they want to see it, including automatic notifications and alerts. For instance, Oakley’s software issues email alerts to management personnel if a tool isn’t returned within 24 hours. “We know when tools are out and who has them, and we get notifications if they’re not returned on time,” Goddard says.

The shop has also set up the software to issue an alert one week before any individual tool requires calibration, Beltz says. This leaves plenty of time to accommodate tools that must be sent to outside services. Regardless of whether calibration is outsourced or performed in-house, schedules are plotted out in advance, and they’re often staggered to prevent the system from issuing alerts for identical tools simultaneously. For example, four identical calipers on 90-day schedules might instead be calibrated one at a time after 30 days, 45 days, 60 days and 90 days, respectively. This practice ensures that at least one caliper is always available while also keeping all four tools within the required calibration window.

Of course, not all calibration follows a set schedule. That’s why, upon returning a tool, employees are required to enter a number designating its condition. Entering “3” indicates damage; “2” indicates the need for calibration; and “1” indicates that a tool is performing well and ready for re-use. In either of the first two cases, the system issues an alert to management and locks the designated compartment down, thereby preventing anyone else from using the tool until the problem can be addressed.

Meanwhile, Trajectory Cloud’s comprehensive records of every tool’s usage and calibration history have proven critical to meeting ISO documentation requirements, Goddard says. “We can pull up a usage report for any tool and find out the number of hours it was checked out, down to the second, by whom and for what job,” he says. This is particularly useful when customers require audit trails for their own quality compliance, a scenario that’s particularly common in medical work. 

Such information is also useful for proving that a given tool hasn’t been removed from the locker within its specified calibration interval. That’s a common scenario for duplicate copies of instruments used so frequently that they rarely leave the floor, Beltz says. Rather than undergoing calibration anyway, as they would have in the past, these duplicate tools can simply be re-certified. In fact, ensuring that tools are calibrated only when they actually need it has saved the shop approximately $10,000 since the first locker was installed less than a year ago, Goddard says.

Although other savings are more difficult to quantify, he emphasizes that they are no less important. Without Axcess and Trajectory Cloud, he explains, Oakley likely would have instituted a manual, labor-intensive system for providing more robust documentation and managing calibration schedules. He estimates that the cost of such a system—which likely would have been passed on to customers—would have been on par with an additional salaried employee. The Axcess lockers not only provide a more cost-effective means to the same end, but also helps ensure all tools are available when needed. “We have 100 percent accountability and traceability for all 52 of our measuring tools, 24 hours a day,” Goddard concludes.