The aftermarket issued a no-confidence vote for its tool control practices—with one-quarter of respondents selecting “highest concern” in a recent Aviation Week survey.

The Web-based poll, conducted in June and July, questioned the global civil aviation aftermarket industry about tool control practices, in preparation for a panel on asset tracking during Aviation Week's MRO Europe Conference on Sept. 24.

When asked “how concerned are you about the effectiveness of your tool control process,” on a scale of 0-10, the average answer was a slightly concerning 6.15.

However, note that only 8% selected a 0 or 1 (the lowest concern) versus 22% who chose 10 (the highest). Delving into those extremes, 50% of the “10s” came from airline carriers' line-maintenance/operations support, versus 37.5% from MROs and 12.5% from OEMs. Comparing that to the 8% who selected the lowest-concern numbers, 55% were from airlines/operations support, 15% from MROs and 30% from OEMs.

While tool control practices and procedures need to improve, capital costs and internal cultural resistance are the two biggest obstacles to adopting new tool control practices, survey results show. Other impediments, such as not having the right technology, finished far behind these two barriers.

Capital cost and cultural resistance concerns could be linked to who owns the hand tools and how tool boxes are assigned.

Consider a European airline that spends €1,800 ($2,388) on a standard electromechanical toolbox for a technician—but it has 12 different types to account for different skill sets and maintenance tasks. If this airline opted for shared toolboxes, fewer tools would be available, which should save money, reduce missing tools and foreign object damage (FOD), and make tools easier to track. The return on investment case could be made for funding a high-tech tool control system, but this airline also anticipates that it would produce cultural and technological resistance.

“Every time improvements are applied to our tool store control systems, we usually have huge discussions and obstructions from the technicians,” says a manager for this airline.

Survey results indicate 64% of respondents work at companies that own the hand tools; the other 34% represent companies where technicians own most hand tools used on the job.

Only 42% of respondents report that more than one person works on a single toolbox per shift—and nearly half of those say they inventory toolboxes daily to ensure they are complete.

Tool control practices vary greatly depending on the job and location. An airline, for instance, can have disparate practices for base maintenance and outstation operations.

Hub environments usually have higher-tech tool control options—often which scan tools and check them in and out to technicians or link them to aircraft, sending alerts when a tool doesn't come back and an aircraft is going out. In heavy maintenance environments, specialized tooling can be scheduled with work orders.

At outstations, those procedures might not be as tight. The same is true for MROs that have heavy maintenance facilities and provide line services.

Even though procedures might vary between maintenance bases and outstations, “all of our tool control policies . . . are laid out in our general maintenance manual, which spells out the day-to-day operation procedures for our maintenance department,” points out Joe Pergola, United Airlines' aircraft maintenance supervisor in Atlanta. And airlines' and MROs' maintenance procedures manuals feature a regulator's stamp of approval.

Because airlines and MROs follow strict rules for tool management, “mechanics are very aware that if they lose a tool, they could be sanctioned or charged with the its replacement cost,” which contributes to the cultural resistance, reports a South American maintenance executive.

Tools and tooling tend to be misplaced more often when items are signed out over multiple shifts. To combat this, one MRO flags tools used on multiple shifts as “critical,” which links them to work cards, so controllers cannot close a work card until those tools are returned.

One survey respondent revealed that his airline uses an internally developed tool booking application, which provides limited reports—such as number of tools per technician—but it is developing a radio-frequency ID solution for tools and ground support equipment for better tracking. (See chart).

The majority of respondents said their companies reported losing 1-10 tools in 2012. When asked about the cost drivers of poor tool control, averaged answers rank the following from highest to lowest: lost productivity, labor dedicated to finding lost tools, operational shutdown or schedule disruption, disassembly or rework to locate a lost tool, and replacing tools.

There was not an obvious correlation between concern about a tool control's effectiveness and a system's lack of electronic or automatic functions. Even though companies use robust software applications in their production environment, many do not connect electronic tool monitoring into these applications. However, “The Tooling Module of our custom-enterprise-resource-planning system can establish dependencies between tools and which aircraft types they are applicable for, as well as training required to check out/use the tools,” reports Art Smith, AAR's vice president and chief quality officer.

Because 60% of respondents indicate they hope to connect electronic tool monitoring into their software applications, expect more activity in this area.

Respondents were divided about their the priorities for better tool control. Reducing the threat of FOD had by far the highest number of first-place votes (but also the second-highest number of “least concerned” votes).

After FOD reduction, the order of goal importance is: less time searching for tools, better inventory control and organization, and obtaining metrics on maintenance tasks/repair flow.

All lead to a more efficient and cost-effective operation.