Innovation: Dispensing with tool cribs

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FACTORY workers have become used to working with robots. Now they do not even have to talk to a fellow human when they are collecting replacement parts, thanks to the Automatic Tool Dispenser, a novel type of vending machine.

Developed in the US and already in use at such leading companies as Ford, Westinghouse and Bristol Myers Squibb, the system is about to become available in Britain through Seco Tools, one of the world's largest tool manufacturers and distributors.

The ATD machine was developed by Electronic Merchandising Systems of Cincinnati, Ohio, and is being marketed by a subsidiary, Vertex Technologies. Electronic Merchandising is a specialist in industrial control systems and advanced dispensing systems.

The idea with the ATD is that companies install the machines in strategic locations on the shop floor, in place of traditional tool cribs. Workers needing parts or tools can retrieve them quickly by using a bar- coded ID card and a personal code. By doing away with queues and reducing set-up times, the system helps increase productivity.

It also reduces wastage by allowing workers to return items when they have finished with them - 'so that they are there for the next person, like a library system,' said Kent Savage, president of Vertex Technologies, on a recent promotional visit to London.

Furthermore, linking the ATDs to a computer enables businesses to collect and analyse tool-usage information and improve re-ordering methods. It can also help to track the work rates of individual employees.

Mr Savage said the facility to update accounting and purchase records automatically was particularly important since the cost of processing purchasing orders often exceeds the cost of the order itself.

'It is the software that adds the value,' he added. By allowing 'instant real-time analysis', it produces better estimating of requirements and lower inventories. 'You are able to see trends as they are happening.'

By introducing the product at a time when companies are reducing staff and trying to become more competitive, his company is helping others to re- engineer their businesses, Mr Savage claimed. He was encouraged by the response of users, he added.

The system is primarily designed for factories, but Vertex says it is also being purchased by public utility and transport companies for use in automated depots and plants.

Seco, the first overseas group to obtain a distribution agreement, is hoping to make the system especially attractive to British industry by offering an electronic link between its offices and users for 'just-in- time' resupply of tools.

Britain was chosen as the first area to be offered the concept outside the US because of the great interest from both Seco and UK manufacturers. 'Progressive British companies are very receptive to better methods of controlling, tracking and managing distribution of perishable tooling,' said Mr Savage. 'The Automatic Tool Dispenser is a state-of-the-art system providing those capabilities, and we expect the UK will be an important market for us.'

Hans Ahman, managing director of Seco Tools (UK), added: 'In today's competitive global manufacturing environment, productivity gains are not a luxury; they are essential. The ATD system will help progressive companies in the UK to become more competitive.'

(Photograph omitted)