Keeping Track of Tools

Advances in bar-code technology can help departments track power tools and protect their investments

By Loren Snyder  

John Maclog knows only too well that expensive tools can disappear from an unwatched tool crib. As a trade supervisor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., Maclog says tools had a way of walking away from the university’s tool supply and disappearing forever. This recurring problem led Sacred Heart to hire an outside management firm that, in part, will manage the university’s tools using an automated scanning system.

“Part of the university’s plan is to use a tool tracking system,” Maclog says. “The management group has already come in and inventoried the tools, and they want to use a scanner system to keep track of the tools in the future.”

One of the most accurate methods to inventory and track the specialized and expensive tools that comprise an institutional tool crib is an automated tracking system. Although institutions often use bar-code systems to track maintenance of life safety systems, including sprinklers and fire extinguishers, the use of dedicated tracking systems for power tools is still in its seminal stages.

Tracking on the Rise

Greater numbers of institutions are investigating bar-code tracking systems for power tools. Pieter van der Have, the director of the physical plant at the University of Utah, agrees that institutions need to track tools.

“We have so much invested in tools and other equipment, that keeping track of it all is absolutely essential.”

“We’re now using a brass tag system to check tools in and out, but we have all the software and hardware for a bar code system,” van der Have says. “Ideally, we intend to get it up and running in one year.” But van der Have adds that the economy’s recent slump has forced the university to spend money elsewhere, putting off the costs of tagging tools until a later date.

The University of Utah and Sacred Heart University are not alone in their preparations for tracking power tools. Brown University, whose power tool maintenance program was profiled in the April 2002 issue of Maintenance Solutions, also is on the verge of computerized tool tracking. As the university’s key control and tool clerk, Bill Bell shoulders responsibility for more than 1,000 tools and tens of thousands of keys.

Bell says that Brown’s use of a bar code system for tools is an outgrowth of the university’s desire to computerize key control.

“Lost keys can create a lot of liabilities, so Brown’s angle was to have better control of them,” Brown says. “But when we discovered excess memory on the computer system, we decided to use a bar code system to track tool crib items, as well.”

Brown’s key control room and tool crib are a combined operation, and Bell says one system will help him track both items.

“If there are any outstanding keys or tools at the end of the day, alarms come up on my computer,” he says. “I won’t be able to shut the computer off until I make a series of authorization entries — or unless the proper authorization has been given that says, such and such tool is to be checked back in by a certain date. Same thing with keys.”

Time and Labor Savings

Jim Robinson, who has used a bar code tracking system at the University of Maryland during the last 10 years, says computerized scanning systems offer many potential benefits.

“Record keeping when tracking items — whether fire extinguishers or power tools — can be horrendous, Robinson says. “Our biggest savings has come in the form of reduced human labor costs and lessened error rate compared to our manual record-keeping system.”

According to Robinson, the biggest benefits of using a bar-code and scanning system include these:

  • Time saved that would have been spent manually maintaining records is great. Record entries are made in seconds via the scanners.
  • Because bar-code systems can be networked, they can be distributed over an institutional campus. In the case of the University of Maryland, Robinson’s equipment is spread through three buildings with the system’s server in a fourth; his area maintenance workers work in more than a dozen locations.
  • Systems can track fixed equipment as well as equipment that moves from place to another.
  • Systems can be set up to tell you when tasks are due, as well as when a tool was checked in or out, down to the second.
  • Databases of gathered information are easily searched.
  • Finding items that have been recalled, particularly for safety or warranty issues, is easier.

Scanning system challenges do exist, however. Robinson says they include:

  • Expense. Systems can be expensive, but so are the costs of record-keeping administrative staff, or the costs that result from human error.
  • Initial setup. Placing bar codes, entering initial information and setting up a computer system can be a slow process during the first year of operation.
  • Computer expertise. This skill is mandatory. Unless users are very computer savvy, users will require support to set up hardware and software, as well as to use the equipment.

Robinson adds that his equipment has been remarkably durable. When the university bought the system, it also purchased a maintenance contract. Of the three wand scanners that came with the initial package, only one has required service in 10 years.

“Aside from regular battery replacements, we haven’t encountered any glitches with the scanners,” Robinson says. The maintenance package also provides the university with regular software updates — a vital part of owning the system, he says. When it comes time to renew the contract, Robinson says he is considering dropping the hardware maintenance but is very interested in keeping the regular software maintenance and updates.

The hardware and software costs of bar-coding systems are expensive, comparatively speaking. The many bar code systems on the market range in price from less than $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars. Although single-user systems are the least expensive, managers can expect to pay more for a networked multi-user tracking system that most large institutions would require.

One of the more significant costs of installing tracking systems is for human labor. Because the University of Utah already has the requisite hardware and software, van der Have says the cost of implementation comes from the task of affixing a bar-code tag to each item that requires tracking.

van der Have estimates the university will spend $50,000 to implement its bar code system.

Bell also echoed van der Have’s concerns about expense but adds that the cost of the system far outweighs the potential losses of not having a system.

“Sure, costs are high,” Bell says. “But with a campus like ours, especially with key-control concerns, the liabilities are just too high not to have this system.” Brown will implement its computerized key and tool controls later this year.

Contact FacilitiesNet Editorial Staff »

  posted on 6/1/2002   Article Use Policy

Related Topics: