Managing tools and supplies



Nothing moves a job along faster, and to a high quality standard, than having ready access to the right tools. They are the last links in the maintenance chain that connect your tradespeople to your plant.

Consider this – equipment does not fail, components do. If a bearing, drive belt or coupling element needs to be replaced, only one component is required, but the job of replacing this component may require many different tools, and some of these tools may be “special” tools.

Frequently tools are not given the attention they deserve. In many of the plants that I visit, tools are “self-managed” – i.e. tradespeople are expected to find the tools they need and to return them to the tool storage area, in good condition, when they have finished the job. Where such a system exists, tool storage areas are invariably in disarray, with many tools missing and others not ready for use. Tradespeople who get their hands on a useful tool may be inclined to keep them in their personal tool box. The cost of the resulting wasted time and lost production from using the wrong tool is a “hidden” cost, which may be very high (see “Hidden costs”).

Good tool management is an essential component of good maintenance management. The following is a list of actions that can be taken to ensure the right tools are always available when needed.

  •  Develop and maintain a list of personal tools that each tradesperson in each trade is required to keep in their own tool box, and to take to each job. Whether the cost of these tools is a personal or a company responsibility is up to you, but the company should cover the cost of the maintenance and replacement of these tools. The tools are there for the benefit of the organization. Of course, addressing any abuse of this privilege is just one of the responsibilities of a maintenance supervisor. The supervisor should also be responsible for ensuring that each of his tradespeople maintain the required stock of personal tools and that they are properly cared for.
  • Assign an experienced person the responsibility for storage and maintenance of special tools (i.e. those not included in the personal tool list). This is an expense that will usually have a very good payback. If your plant is not large enough to justify a full-time tool room attendant, consider including in his duties the maintenance of parts that need regular servicing, such as re-sharpening production cutting blades, rebuilding rotary joints, refilling ink cartridges, etc, by locating the equipment needed to do these jobs in the tool room.

The tool room attendant should check each special tool on its return and ensure that it is ready for re-use before it is put away (sharp, clean, etc). He should also be responsible for testing and re-certification of rigging components and other tools where this is a requirement. You may also consider including the the library of hard-copy maintenance and service manuals in the tool room as these require exactly the same process for control as special tools.

At the very least, set up a routine for ensuring that all special tools are in the right place and are in good condition at the end of each work week – a good example of an effective use of a standing work order, to be included on each weekly schedule. And make this job easy by providing shadow boards and other obvious, designated storage locations for all tools, including bit racks at drill presses, etc.

An option for the management of tools is to include this in the responsibilities of your Maintenance Storeroom staff – much more likely to be effective if the Storeroom is a part of the Maintenance organization.

  • Make it very easy to obtain tools from and return them to the tool room. If your tradespeople find that your maintenance computer system is cumbersome to use, don’t make them use it to get the tools they need. A simple system is the best, such as giving each tradespeople a set of tags with their name and employee number on them, so that when they take a tool from the Storeroom their tag can be hung on a hook at the storage location for that tool until it is returned.
  • Assign all tools a material catalogue number (see “Asset identification and numbering”) and be sensible about the way that they are managed. Keep tools in stock if appropriate. For example, a typical standard is that twist drill bits up to 1/2 inch are personal tools and are not returnable, and bits over 1/2 inch are special tools and are issued by and returned to the tool room. Involve your tradespeople in establishing these standards for all tools, and record them in the appropriate field in the materials catalogue.
  • Standardize on tools, especially power tools, as much as possible so that chargers, bits, repair parts, etc, are interchangeable.
  • Include all special tools in the spare parts lists for all equipment and assemblies (see “Spare parts lists”). Show the location of each tool and, where necessary, a link to the instructions for its use.
  • Include special tools in all work plans and standard job plans. See “Detailed planning” for an example.
  • Ensure that your plant’s security encourages the use of the best tools. For example, cordless power tools are a great way to increase productivity, so make sure that they are readily available and can be taken to a job site without concern about them “disappearing”. And if they do disappear, replace them promptly. Don’t ignore the cost of your tradespeople’s time and the huge value in removing obstacles they face in getting their jobs done (see “What does a tradesperson really cost?”).
  • During major shutdowns, consider hiring a good local rental company to set up a temporary tool room on site, and to manage the issue and return of special tools.
  • Where special tools are required during major equipment shutdowns, a portable tool room may improve shutdown performance. The picture below is of such a “room” containing heavy rigging equipment required to change rolls on a large paper machine. It is stored away from the machine during operation, and during shutdowns it is lifted to the operating floor beside the machine with the house crane.

  • Where special tools and supplies are used in a single location by a trained tradesperson, consider keeping these tools and supplies close to where they are used and assigning responsibility for their storage to the tradesperson. An example is grinding wheels and belts for specialized grinding machines and cutting tools for lathes and milling machines. These tools and supplies should still have a catalogue number and an identified location, but the Storeroom will delegate inventory control to the tradesperson responsible.
  • Stay up to date on tools. Tools evolve constantly, and old special tools may be very inefficient compared to the tools currently available.
  • Don’t forget to manage tools which are stored on maintenance vehicles. A quick indication of the state of maintenance management is to open a tool box on a maintenance truck. If it contains a tangle of air hoses, extension cords, rigging and so on, there’s probably room for improvement in many areas.

Maintenance vehicles are a combination of storeroom, workshop and tool room. Each tool should have a proper place for storage, and be kept in the right place. A good project is to have area tradespeople select the tools that they feel should be on each vehicle, and design and install efficient storage racks, bins, etc, that will allow the vehicle to be kept orderly and allow easy access to each tool. Each vehicle should have a list of tools kept on board, and the vehicle should be inspected as regularly as necessary (no less often than weekly) to ensure that all tools are in place and in good condition.

  • Minimize the need to share tools. Good tradespeople may have a large investment in their personal tools and want to be sure that they are used the way they were designed to be used. Apprentices should have their own personal tools, which they will build up during each year of their training. Temporary tradespeople and contractors should always provide their own tools, based on your personal tool lists.
  • Some of the above principles also apply to maintenance equipment, such as lift trucks, cranes, mobile compressors, etc. These will be covered in a future article.

When a maintenance improvement programme is started, it is a good idea to make changes that are immediately apparent to all maintenance employees. Along with implementing a weekly/daily scheduling system and improving housekeeping, improving tool management is a great place to start. It involves everyone and is a very visible change.

As an investment, providing the correct tools may have an extremely short payback period – perhaps as little as a few days. So do not go cheap – insist on purchasing only “industrial strength” tools.

Even actions such as providing each mechanical tradesperson with his own cordless drill, mini-grinder and impact wrench (as examples) may have a very good payback, through improved productivity and work quality.



As with tools, supplies are often not given the attention they deserve. “Supplies” include those items which are not tools and are not “spare parts” but are required to complete maintenance work. Examples include fasteners, small pipe and electrical fittings, adhesives and sealants, bulk gasket material, cleaning materials, lubricants and personal safety equipment. The lack of these supplies, when needed, will stop a job just as surely as the lack of the correct spare parts.

Supplies should be managed as material catalogue items, with a catalogue number and location. Many supplies should be “free issue” items, i.e. they are stored in open bins where tradespeople can help themselves, and a good location is outside the Storeroom, in sight of the Storeroom counter attendant. Free issue bins should have bin location numbers, as with any other stock item. It should be a Storeroom responsibility to frequently check and replenish free-issue stocks, although this may be delegated to a vendor, with the appropriate controls. Once again, when the cost of a tradesperson’s time is considered, you may find that it is economical to be very generous in the number of items available in free-issue bins.

Spare parts lists should include supplies, with the catalogue number and the storage location.

If your plant has infrequent major shutdowns, it is a good practice to track the usage of supplies during these shutdowns so that inventories can be temporarily increased prior to each shutdown to avoid outages.

To achieve high reliability at the lowest cost, spare parts must be properly managed, but the management of tools and supplies is just as critical.


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© Veleda Services Ltd

Don Armstrong, President
250-655-8267 Pacific Time