Maintenance Strategies for Special Tools

Bob Schindler

We all accumulate special fixtures, lifting frames, carts, transport pallets and piping inserts that are infrequently used but save time and enhance safety when their time comes. What you do with these special tools in between determines whether you get that savings and safety boost again or if you have to make the same investment over and over.

What kind of an investment? If you do the job infrequently, you have to retake the measurements, find the stock material, fabricate the pieces and verify the fits. None of this is cheap, and it usually happens in the middle of a job when you can least afford the time or diversion of labor. It’s obviously not cost effective to do it over and over again, so why not make the first time count?

Even if you aren’t sure that it will ever be used again, wait until things calm down and then evaluate the item. If it was a once-in-a-century affair, trash it and move on. If it looks like something that will be used again, record the dimensions and take pictures. Digital pictures can be inserted into or linked to a document for that equipment file or the file for that special job, and it helps explain the application of the item if you can take some pictures of it in use.

Color-coding your special tools is also a good practice. Pick a color scheme that is unique and make sure everyone knows that anything painted that color, no matter how much it looks like junk, is to be preserved and returned to shop storage.

Labeling that special tool or fixture is another must, as well as its storage container. I’ve seen special tools painted a fluorescent yellow with numbers stenciled on them that were several years old. The yellow was their special color that was easy to recognize from a distance, and the number corresponded to a file folder that contained a scaled drawing, a detailed description and a step-by-step procedure on how to use it (with photos). Employees at that plant knew what the color meant and how to find the file on the specific item. They also knew that destroying or trashing a special tool was a termination offense at that company.

The good part about the unique ID number is that it allows you to reference it in work orders, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and bills of materials (BOMs). Add a designated, labeled storage spot and you get maximum value from your first-time expense. Another advantage is that if you have similar equipment at multiple plants, you can ship the tools or fixtures as needed and leverage the investment even further. This saves overall costs and increases reliability as jobs get done easier, faster and probably better.

If you manufacture equipment and you use special tools and fixtures during assembly, you may even open a new revenue stream by renting them to customers during major rebuilds or modifications. Just loaning them out for free builds customer loyalty and improves your equipment reputation for maintainability.

An example of a simple, rare-use specialty item is one from my own past. We needed to move 3,200-pound grinding roller assemblies around every fall during mill overhauls at a brewery. This process involved going in and out of elevators, plus maneuvering through some tight doorways and passages. These assemblies could crush feet and break legs if they got away, and their awkward shape made them difficult to fit onto off-the-shelf carts, so it was important to have control of them at all times.

Our technicians initially designed an all-steel cart that ran about $3,500 each to have built, but after one of only two disappeared during a plant expansion phase, we went low-tech for the replacements. Our carpenter contractor bolted together replacement carts from 4-by-4s, three-quarter-inch plywood and heavy-duty casters with angle-iron capture brackets at the corners. The carts’ wood protected the roller surface profiles, and the four swivel casters allowed for perfect control into and out of tight spaces. The low profile kept the center of balance low to minimize tipping concerns. The carts stacked for storage in a designated location until needed the next fall.

At only $800 each, we got six for the price of one steel cart, so that simplified handling the three rebuilt assemblies and the three old assemblies without the need for much handling during the job. Pre-staging was a snap.

The lesson here is that a low-tech solution is sometimes the most cost-effective one.

Another key lesson is that you need to control your specialty items so that they are there when you need them.

So, to summarize:

  • Determine if it will be used again in your lifetime.
  • Make a dimensional drawing.
  • Number, label and color-code it if possible.
  • Create a file for it.
  • Include how-to procedures and photos of it in use.
  • Designate a storage location that is labeled and record it in the equipment master file.
  • Refer to it in your work procedures and SOPs.
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