Keeping track of tools is important for electrical contracting companies of every size. Tools are company assets, and losing or misplacing tools wastes valuable time and money to locate or replace them.
Computer-based programs designed to record tool inventories are nothing new, but today’s systems have evolved from having simple tracking capabilities to being tool management systems that monitor not only locations, but also cost, condition, use and other variables that significantly affect a company’s bottom line. Product and implementation costs vary by company size and need.
In this article, three tool-tracking/management companies explain the benefits of effectively managing tool inventories.
Larry Harper, CribMaster president, said: “CribMaster offers a complete inventory-management system that provides VDV [voice/data/video] contracting businesses with a robust storeroom solution to help them better control their supplies and mobile assets. The system pairs a variety of industrial tool-vending machines, RFID [radio frequency identification] tool drawers, and other portable storage systems that utilize weight-sensing and RFID technologies [both passive and active] to track the items they hold.
“Tool-management systems use keyless-entry storage devices, such as automated locker systems, carousel-dispensing systems and tool chests, that allow VDV contractors to store a wide range of tools and supplies throughout a facility or job site without relying on a centralized storeroom. These systems establish accountability among users by providing secure, 24/7 access control where the tools are stored. The inventory-control software behind these devices automates workflow to enforce item restriction, quantity limits and other policies, which provides security with few barriers to production.
“RFID technology storage systems detect the RFID-tagged assets stored within them. To remove a tool, the system requires identification, allowing the transaction to be automatically logged. [It] can be programmed to restrict access to various items and will automatically generate a red-flag alert if a tool is not returned in an appropriate timeframe. With the inclusion of strategically placed Last-Point-Read monitors and RFID scanners, the system can provide the location of tools that allow supervisors to precisely track tool movement throughout a facility.
“Our mobile tool-tracking system combines tool-tracking software with large containers [up to 53 feet] and an RFID secure-entry portal system. It is ideal for tracking laptops, testers and specialty tools. Utilizing RFID technology, the system allows the portal entry to detect the various RFID-tagged assets each time the authorized contractor enters or exits the trailer. The system can automatically record when the item was taken, who took it and when it was returned.
“Our systems operate on a flexible platform, either web-based or locally operated Windows- certified software application. Our mobile solution for managing high-volume, bulk-issue inventory—such as connectors, sleeves, molded plastic components or PPE—is an industrial-grade, secured point-of-use dispensing device. The system utilizes highly accurate weight-sensing technology and inventory management software to immediately count and record inventory levels when an item transaction occurs.
“Leading barriers to using tool-management systems include fear of technology, compliance issues and cost. Generally speaking, I believe the VDV contractor market has not yet realized the benefits of tool-tracking and inventory-management solutions. Inefficient inventory-management processes, tool and equipment safety noncompliance, and costs related to tool loss should be major concerns for any integrated systems contractor,” Harper said.
John Inman, Trimble AllTrak product manager for field service and mobility, MEP division: “A tool-tracking system simply provides a mechanism for companies to check tools out from their warehouses to individual employees and possibly to projects. A tool-management system provides much more robust capabilities and adds the ability to track tool costs for a project, manage scheduled service, perform inspections and calibrations for tools, [and] provides alerts for overdue tools, scheduled service, overdue rental equipment, [and] low inventory on consumable materials across single or multiple branch offices with multiple warehouses.
“Companies that implement tool-tracking and management systems see both hard and soft benefits that include increased employee accountability for tools they have been assigned, longer lasting tools due to scheduled maintenance, and accurately tracked tool costs for individual projects. In addition, the system provides information about assets, such as location, responsibility, cost, service, condition and utilization; reduces annual tool cost by minimizing unnecessary tool purchases to replace lost or misplaced tools; and [mitigates] tool hoarding.
“Company management may know money is leaking due to poor tool management but is struggling to commit to spending the time and effort to implement a system. However, 90 percent of tools purchased to replace lost tools can be recouped in the first year. Productivity can be improved by being able to provide access to required tools when they are needed.
“Components of Trimble’s AllTrak system include its data server, client application, mobile application software, and handheld controller with barcode scanner. Training is conducted with live, interactive WebEx sessions lasting from one to one-and-a-half hours. Typically four to six hours of training is divided into three areas, which may involve different client employees: administrator training, new user training and mobile training.
“One of the primary benefits of using a tracking system is that it is significantly easier than attempting to manage assets using spreadsheets and paper checkout/check-in forms. Trimble provides tools and support for the creation of the initial database, the most significant investment to get started,” Inman said.
Don Kafka, chief executive officer for ToolWatch, said: “Automated tracking and management systems can significantly reduce tool loss, improve warehouse and job site productivity, and provide detailed job cost and billing information. It will reduce unscheduled downtime, improve safety reporting and reduce liability exposure. True tool-management systems… provide the critical information necessary to make business decisions that impact an organization’s operational and financial performance.
“[ToolWatch’s Enterprise system, a cloud-based application] is easy to use and securely stores critical information about warehouse and field operations in one centralized database. The system also includes the supporting modules, such as service and calibration, purchasing and receiving, and job cost and billing. The mobile field application is compatible with all iPhone, iPod and iPad devices to streamline project operations.
“Tools, equipment and materials are identified and tagged with barcodes, RFID tags or GPS tags. As these items move from the warehouse to job sites or employees, they are scanned and recorded electronically as transactions. These transactions then go on to provide all of the data necessary for tool management and other available functions.
“We provide three training options: live, online training with real-time instructors; classroom training at our training center in Denver; and a series of online lessons through our ToolWatch University.
“We find that about 50 percent of contractors we talk to are now using a purchased tool-tracking system, about 30 percent are using some other form of tracking (such as Excel, white boards or a ‘homegrown’ system), and the remaining 20 percent are not using anything.
“The biggest misconception and resistance is the belief that the amount of work and expense necessary to implement and maintain a system will not be worth the investment. The typical ROI on a tracking system is usually very short and continues to provide upside from that point forward.
“The financial investment is very small when subscribing to a service, compared to purchasing all of the software and modules. ToolWatch’s system costs the customer $150 per month per user. Customers can also purchase mobile- scanning devices and subscriptions to support remote field operations.
“Beyond the cost of the subscription, an organization must dedicate personnel to identifying and tagging tools, equipment, materials and learning the new system. However, the return on investment is almost always recouped within six months or less, no matter the size of the organization.
“I owned an electrical contracting business for 20 years. In the mid ’80s, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the management software necessary to run my contracting business because it was not yet commercially available.
“Today, technology has come so far, and cost of it has dropped dramatically. I cannot imagine running a successful contracting business today without one of these systems,” Kafka said.