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A Guide to RFID Tool-Tracking Solutions

Automating in-house and job-site systems to manage hand tools can reduce costs and improve safety.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 01, 2012—Most construction firms, energy and mining companies, and aerospace manufacturers have a common problem: The hand tools essential to their work tend to disappear from their plants and job sites. Whether tools are hoarded, mislaid or stolen, if the correct tool isn't in the right place when needed, it can delay or stop production. "Lost" tools that must be replaced have a negative impact on a company's or project's bottom line. And if a tool is accidentally left inside an engine or other piece of machinery, it could cause millions of dollars in damage or, worse, compromise safety.

The lost-tools problem has persisted despite the fact that tools are generally kept in secure cribs, managed by employees who record workers' names and the tools they check into and out of inventory. This manual process is slow, error-prone and labor-intensive. Some companies use bar-code technology in an attempt to automate their systems, but there are two major drawbacks: The bar codes on tools used in industrial environments are often too dirty to be scanned, and tools can't be located without a clear line of sight between the bar code and scanner.

Readers mounted near doorways or choke points can track the movements of tagged tools throughout a facility. (Photo: CribMaster)

"Some of our first customers using RFID tool tracking were in the roofing industry," says Dean Perry, president of ToolHound, a provider of tool- and equipment-management systems. "Tar dirt covers the bar code on a tool, and it can no longer be read. With RFID, if the tool is covered with tar, it does not matter."

Tool-management vendors began testing and piloting passive and active (battery-powered) RFID tool-tracking systems in the mid-2000s. One of the main challenges at that time was that metal impairs read accuracy when using passive RFID tags, and many tools contain metal or are stored on metal shelves. The active systems delivered more reliable read rates, but the tags were expensive.
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