When Monarch Aircraft Engineering (MAEL) started building a new purpose-built maintenance hangar at Birmingham Airport, the decision was made that no engineer’s personal toolbox would ever enter the building.
“It’s been a tradition in this sector that engineers slowly build up their own toolkit as they go through their career; and typically it can take 10, 15, 20 years to get the kit to where you want it to be,” says Lee Burgess, general manager maintenance planning and strategy at MAEL, which services third-party aircraft alongside Monarch’s fleet. “Each toolkit, although largely similar, is unique.”
Another challenge posed to MRO firms by personal toolboxes is how to ensure tight tool control. It can be difficult for management to know exactly what tools are in every toolbox in the hangar, particularly when there is an influx of casual labour, for example, and to provide assurance that every tool is returned at the end of every shift.
When MAEL started talking about a new facility, it decided to take the opportunity to implement a radically different approach to its tooling. It invested in company-owned tools coupled with a digital system that provides oversight of every tool in the facility. The system enables MAEL’s management and quality teams to know exactly what tools are in the hangar, who is using them, when they are in use and on what task.
Tooling up an entire facility with capacity for up to eight lines of maintenance and 150 engineers is no simple task, but with an unmovable deadline, MAEL and tool provider Snap-on Industrial did it in just five months.
Drivers and benefits
Compliance is the key driver for MROs looking to introduce tighter and auditable tool controls, according to Stephen Davis, account manager at Snap-on Industrial. “Lots of companies in the aviation world are grappling with the problem of moving away from personal tools because they are not really controllable in a sensible fashion and that’s not an option going forward,” he says. “The regulators have perhaps ruled with a light touch in the past, but that’s tightening up.”
MAEL’s Burgess agrees: “The industry is moving towards better tool control — EASA is driving regulation that way. We also have some military customers who have also driven us to better control.”
Commercial airlines too are beginning to ask MROs to demonstrate what controls they have in place to combat the risk of lost tools. And it’s no wonder, the damage that can be wrought by a single misplaced spanner or bolt can be significant. In 2009, for example, the US Air Force had to write off a $244m E-8C surveillance aircraft after
a plug left in a fuel tank relief vent caused the tank to rupture.
With heavy checks taking months to complete and with many technicians involved, it can be difficult for managers to know what tools are being used with the traditional personal toolbox approach. “We’re an inherently safe industry,
but with personal tools there remains a risk of tools being used and potentially not returned,” explains Burgess.
Furthermore, for those MRO facilities with clients looking for auditable data trail on tool control, personal toolboxes pose a significant challenge. It can be difficult to document exactly what tools have been used on an aircraft and that
they were collected at the end of the shift. Firms have to work on a trust policy, with engineers coming forward when they have misplaced a tool.
While the safety record of the industry demonstrates that this system works, it does not provide an auditable trail.
Within a digital toolbox, like the Snap-on cabinets in place at MAEL’s Birmingham site, each of the tools are tagged with a unique identifier and the accompanying software system tracks who has “checked out” the tool and what
job they are working on. This means every tool in the facility is traceable. “Most importantly this means that at the end of every shift we know if any tools are missing, who booked them out and where they were used,” says Burgess.
“That means you can go and talk to the engineer about where he last used the tool while it is still fresh in his
mind.” It also means that when MAEL redelivers an aircraft to one of its customers, it has an auditable
paper trail associated with each of the tools used during the maintenance.
For MAEL opening the new facility and the switch to company-provided tooling was also an opportunity to embrace a new culture within the hangar in Birmingham. “Five or six years ago we started to introduce independent inventories at our Luton and Manchester facilities. So each engineer had to have an inventory of items in their toolkit and we encouraged them to put foam inserts into their toolboxes so that they could see when tools were missing,” explains Burgess.
“To gain buy-in we put up ‘Monarch standards and values’ posters that showed what we felt a professional engineer’s toolbox looks like and what a backstreet garage mechanic’s toolbox looks like’. It was all about inspiring our
mechanics to take pride in their tools and do the right thing.”
This approach was taken to the next step with Birmingham, where instead of hundreds of different size, shape and colour personal toolboxes — as you would see in a traditional MRO facility — you find 23 large, Monarch branded tool cabinets.
“It makes the facility look far more professional; it’s more akin to walking into a Mercedes dealership than a backstreet garage and that’s important when trying to instil a culture of professionalism,” says Burgess. “If you give engineers the best tools to do the job, then they walk around with their heads held higher and it changes how they feel about themselves.”
Alongside a tidier, more professional aesthetic in the hangar, the switch also means a significant space saving. When planning the layout of the new hangar, the team analysed how much floor space was needed to store 300 personal toolboxes compared with the universal tool cabinets, and found that it would free up an area the size of an A320.
Another key benefit of adopting a company solution, according to Davis, is that it enables an MRO to ensure the quality of tools used on its clients’ aircraft. “On a normal shopfloor you will get a mix of tools. You will get the guys who are really proud of their tooling and prioritise buying good quality equipment, and you’ll get other guys
who will spend the bare minimum. Meanwhile there are the apprentices who only have a small budget to work with,” he explains.
“A company-supplied solution provides everything that everybody needs to a uniform standard. And the MRO is in charge of the quality of the tooling that is being used on its customers’ aircraft.”
A simple system
When looking for a smart tool solution, MAEL’s key requirements were a system that would provide visibility and traceability of tools and ensure the facility and its engineers had the correct level of tooling to meet the needs of all
the MRO work that would be undertaken when it was up and running.
John Swords, team leader of maintenance planning and control, was working in Luton at the start of the Birmingham design project and was given the task of understanding the layout of the new site. He led the implementation of the smart tool control system.
“We chose Snap-on’s network control (NTC) system, which is based on barcode technology,” he explains. “Each shopfloor engineer has a unique operator card that is linked to multiple solutions including our time and attendance system. To access one of the tool cabinets the engineer has to swipe his card. The computer will then ask them for a task card for the job he is working on, which is also swiped, and then the system allows them to take tools out of the box.”
Each of the 23 NTC tool cabinets at MAEL’s Birmingham facility is around the size of a retail freezer cabinet (1,851mm wide, 740mm deep and 1,165mm tall), with multiple drawers of tools surrounded by foam inserts. A computer with a screen sits on top of the cabinet providing the Windows-based user interface.
Burgess says: “The system is really intuitive. It’s no more difficult than walking up to a tool store and asking for a
tool. The guy there zaps your badge and the tool and it’s then allocated to you. With these toolkits the screen tells you what to do as you go through the steps — swipe your card, swipe the tool etc — so it’s easy to use. Training for the engineers was just an hour because it is so straightforward.”
Before allowing engineers to open a cabinet the system performs a sense check to ensure that his capabilities match that of the toolbox. Each engineer’s level of access is listed on a database maintained by Swords, against which the software crosschecks. “For example, an airframe engineerwouldn’t be able to access an avionics toolbox because there would be tools in there that he’s not qualified to use,” explains Burgess.
The cabinets are on coasters and use wi-fi to transmit and receive data, meaning that they can moved around the hangar to suit the maintenance tasks at hand. Each comes with eight highusage kits, which contain the majority of tools an engineer is likely to need for his day-to-day work, with the remainder of the less frequently used tools either kept within the cabinet or in the facility’s tool store.
“If you think of an engineer moving from his toolbox to doing his task, he would take a varied selection of sockets, a hammer, a screwdriver and a torch, for example, in a tool tidy to the aircraft and then if he needed additional tools he would go back to his toolbox and get them,” says Swords.
“This works on the same principle. In the morning the engineer gets his task card, books out a high-usage kit and if he needed any other tools he would go back to the main toolbox and scan that tool out. This enables them to perform 80 per cent of their tasks with 20 per cent of the tooling solution.”
The high-usage kits are scanned out as one item, but the engineers are required to check that all the tools are accounted for when he books the kit out and when he checks it back in at the end of his shift. The kits include foam inserts to make this as simple as possible.
In total, the Birmingham facility has more than 30,000 uniquely barcoded Snap-on tools. It has 16 cabinets containing tools for the maintenance of airframes (B1), four for avionics work (B2), two for structures repairs and one for trimming and fitting, as well as 182 high-usage toolkits, which each hold around 50 tools. Knowing exactly what tools to put in the boxes was a crucial challenge.
Right first time
The first task for Snap-on was to get a picture of the typical toolkit of a MAEL engineer. Monarch pulled together a team of 12 engineers with different levels of experience whose toolboxes were considered to be representative of what would be needed in the new facility.
These were then audited and lists of the tools were sent to Snap-on “We combined this into one master list, striking out the duplicates, and this was the basis for a standard company inventory,” recalls Davis.
As a part of this process the Snap-on team came into MAEL’s hangars with demonstration kits to show the engineers. “It’s important to get shopfloor buy-in with projects like this. These pre-implementation meetings were our chance to go in and speak to the engineers and say: ‘This is your chance to contribute to what is in the kits.’” he says.
Davis and his team worked with Swords to talk to the engineers and find out which tools would be used infrequently, and so could go into the store, and about any unique tools that Snap-on would have to reverse engineer.
This service was particularly useful in putting together the cabin interiors kits, says Swords. “These kits are quite quirky; they’ve got tools with very small leading edges to work with laminates and ground down sockets for putting the cabin seats in, for example. Snap-on took those tools away and manufactured them, and now they have part numbers and are available to order whenever we need them.”
Once the list of tools was finalised, Snap-on drew on its experience working with other facilities to calculate what level of tooling would be needed for the Birmingham site, which would be performing 1,000 man hours of MRO work a day during the busy winter season. Snap-on then set about making the kits, tagging each of the tools with their unique laser identification numbers and working with MAEL’s IT team to ensure that when the hangar opened in November 2013 the system was fully functioning.
“We have to work closely with our customer’s IT departments because all the boxes need to be connected to the hangar’s wifi, there also needs to be database where all the transactions [tool movements] are recorded, as well as a reporting interface so management can pull out information,” explains Davis.
Data is, of course, where switching to an electronic tooling system offers its key benefits. Alongside the ability to demonstrate tool control to customers and identify tools not returned within a shift, having a system which
records tool usage enables facilities to ensure that the toolkits are correct and functioning as they should do.
For example, the system allows users to extract data on daily tool usage, to track whether there are tools that are frequently in demand — and so more may be needed — or not used at all, and can be moved from the cabinets on the floor to the tool store.
These systems can work to help support MROs looking to adopt a lean philosophy in their operations, according to Davis. Since the Birmingham facility opened, the tool usage data collected has confirmed that the work that went into planning the toolkits has paid off, with just five per cent of the tools in the boxes unused in their first six months.
“I was surprised that we got it so close to the mark,” admits Swords. “The initial box was based on best endeavours,
but our six-month review showed we were almost there.”
Other reports that MAEL is using on a regular basis include those providing data on broken tools. Not only does this provide a list of new tools for order, but it can help to track down problems with a tool choice, says Davis.
“If you find that a particular tool is being broken regularly, you are able to look into why. You can find out whether it is being broken on the same task on the same aircraft, if so it might not be the right tool for the job or it could be a training issue. It might even be just one user that’s really heavy handed,” he explains. “When you’ve got the data
you can analyse it and make intelligent decisions about improving the business. If you don’t have the data you’re in the dark.”
Burgess confirms that this report was helpful for MAEL in identifying that a set of scrapers, which kept breaking, was not the right for the work being undertaken in the hangar and Snap-on was able to replace it with another set more
suited to the task.
The next phase of the smart tool control programme at MAEL is trialling new technologies. The Birmingham facility has embarked on a pilot of Snap-on’s latest development, automated tool control (ATC). ATC removes the need for scanning barcoded tools, instead cameras in the cabinet drawers take a photograph of the contents every time it is opened and closed. The image is saved to MAEL’s central server and the system automatically assigns the removed tool to the engineer who opened the cabinet.
“We’re trialling the ATC toolbox on a dedicated line of maintenance so we see activity every day and can collect good
For established MRO site’s considering investing in smart tooling systems Davis says that the pilot approach works best. He advises firms to choose one section of a facility to trial the system and work out any wrinkles before rolling it out more widely.
The other key factor in making the switch, he says, is communication. “You cannot impose something like this from the top. The engineers are going to be working with these tools day-in and day out, so you have to get their buy-in. Ask for their suggestions and you will get useful insights and the shopfloor will start to take ownership of the project,” he says.
“Management has to play their part as well. They have to explain why the change is happening, whether it’s due to compliance with regulations or to present a more uniform image to customers. Communication removes uncertainty
and people don’t like uncertainty. If you communicate, you will be fine.”
That approach certainly seems to have worked at MAEL. Burgess confirms: “I can honestly say we haven’t had any negative feedback from the engineers about the tooling. It’s gone really well.” Swords agrees: “We’ve had these tools
in place for almost a year and they look like they’re only a month old, the engineers are really taking care of them. And they know that if they need anything new they can talk to us and we can look at getting it added.”
Birmingham’s smart toolboxes
- 30,000 tools
- 23 toolboxes — 16 airframe main kits (B1), four avionic main kits (B2), two structures repair kits and one trim bay main kit
- 182 high usage kits — each containing around 50 tools — 160 “mech” kits (B1), 16 avionics kits (B2) and six trimmers kits.
- Space saved: footprint of an A320 aircraft