CribMaster Updates Its RFID Units’ Real-Time Tool Management

By Claire Swedberg

With its UHF RFID-enabled cabinets, or with retrofitted kits using PervasID readers, the company is offering avionics and automotive companies, as well as other manufacturers, a solution for preventing tool loss and foreign object debris at more than 99 percent read accuracy.

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CribMaster, a division of  Stanley Black & Decker, is providing customers with an updated, faster and more accurate RFID-enabled solution to ensure its manufacturing customers have full visibility into their tools. By knowing where the tools are located during manufacturing processes, users of the company’s Accu line of mobile tool storage units can prevent foreign object debris (FOD) incidents, reduce the risk of damage to the products they make (such as aircraft parts) and comply with industry regulations. Ultimately, the company reports, that means lowering the risk of fines, penalties or high insurance premiums.

While CribMaster previously offered RFID functionality in its Accu products, highly metallic and crowded environments slowed the process of tag reading, and tag reads were not 100 percent accurate. The company says it wanted the latest version of its products to offer greater tag read speed and accuracy. The new reader built into the units, from U.K. technology company  PervasID, ensures that more tags can be read in the cabinet, faster and with more flexibility, based on where each tag is placed, the type of tag used and the tool orientation in the cabinet, the company reports.

The Accu line of RFID-enabled units provides CribMaster’s customers with real-time insight into whether or not their assets, ranging from sockets to large air tools, are where they’re supposed to be, according to Kelly Musselwhite, CribMaster’s president. The solution includes an RFID reader with and four antennas, as well as tags attached to each tool and CribMaster inventory-control software to manage the collected read data. The information provided by the cabinet is critical for CribMaster’s customers, she says, as they include manufacturers in highly regulated industries like aerospace, for which a single misplaced item could cause production to come to a halt.

In worst-case scenarios, FOD can cause catastrophic failures.  Boeing estimates that FOD incidents cause $4 billion in damages throughout the aviation industry annually. For that reason, companies strive to closely manage their tools and ensure that anything in the assembly area is returned to tool cabinets promptly. By automating the process of detecting which tools are in a cabinet, as well as which have not yet been returned, Musselwhite says, “Our Accu solutions can reduce FOD and enable prevention programs, especially in FOD-critical areas where a single loose item could be catastrophic.” The same FOD concerns occur throughout the aviation industry, she adds—in maintenance, operations and facilities, for instance.

The latest version of RFID technology is provided only in CribMaster’s ‘s AccuDrawer mobile drawers. Each unit comes with a PervasID UHF RFID reader that captures the EPC number of every tagged item placed within, while a cabled connection to CribMaster’s software enables management to access, store and forward data. The information is also displayed on a screen mounted on each storage unit.

“Our goal,” Musselwhite explains, “is to take the burden of inventory management away for our customers, and that requires a solution that is highly accurate, incredibly fast and always reliable in a rugged, demanding manufacturing environment.” She says the company found that the PervasID technology “was the best choice to help us achieve that goal.” With PervasID’s reader, the new version of the Accu line offers increased speed, accuracy and flexibility, she reports, adding that the system’s flexibility ensures that the reader will continue to read each tag, no matter how a tool is tagged or oriented.

Companies using the products tend to be in the aerospace, automotive, defense and power-generation industries. The system is designed for ease of use, CribMaster indicates. First, a user would identify himself or herself—for instance, by scanning a badge in front of the unit—to provide his or her ID to the system and launch the unlocking of drawers or doors. The individual would then take the tools needed for that day’s tasks. As tools are removed, the antennas cease to detect their specific RFID tags and thus update the software to indicate what has been removed, with that data linked to the specific person who accessed the unit.

Once the individual returns, he or she can proceed through the same steps: identifying himself or herself with the badge, then putting the tools back in the cabinet. The screen will display alerts for the user if an item that should have been returned has not been detected, and management can view that data as well. In that way, managers can view statuses in real time, receive alerts if tools are not returned, and view historical data.

CribMaster began working with PervasID on the solution last year. PervasID’s passive RFID reader solution provides real-time accuracy of up to 99.9 percent, according to Sabesan Sithamparanathan, the company’s founder and CEO. Each tool in a standard RFID CribMaster cabinet—up to 500—can be tracked within seconds, with what he claims is greater accuracy, range and speed than other readers on the market. PervasID designs and supplies passive (battery-free) fixed RFID reader systems for automating inventory tracking. The company, founded by  University of Cambridge researchers, offers a distributed antenna system that transmits RF signals across wide beams that fill a zone in order to detect precise locations.

To serve the needs of the CribMaster application, Sithamparanathan says, the firm performed some customizing. “We thought of making use of preinstalled antennas and cables, thus minimizing hardware and installation changes,” he states. “Jointly working with CribMaster, within a few weeks, we were able to modify [the reader’s] algorithm” to operate with the four pre-installed antennas, and to maintain high accuracy within a small, crowded and highly metallic environment. The system works well with off-the-shelf UHF RFID tags, he adds.

Kelly Musselwhite

With the new reader, the company reports, the units can accommodate a greater number of tagged tools, and tag reads take place quickly so there are no delays as each worker selects his or her own tools. CribMaster provides handheld and portal readers that can be used to search for items or detect them as workers leave the assembly area. Because many of the Accu products were already in use by customers, CribMaster also offers a kit to upgrade the cabinet with PervasID readers.

Customer feedback has been good, Musselwhite reports. “They are extremely happy,” she says. “There’s been a lot of benefit in speed, but what customers really love is the accuracy, and the additional flexibility in how they tag their tools.” Because of this, “They are able to really rely on the cabinet more than before.” Going forward, she predicts, “We will continue to grow and expand our Accu line, always looking for new ways to help our customers achieve compliance, improve productivity and increase efficiency.”

Musselwhite expects that the efficiencies users will gain from deploying the Accu solutions will compound over time. “We’ve found PervasID’s readers to be significantly more sensitive than other readers we’ve used,” she states, “meaning they can detect smaller tags on smaller tools, like sockets.”