The latest technology helps plumbers work efficiently.

Dynamic Systems Inc. uses bar-code technology to streamline tool check in/out.

Controlling overhead during this squeezed economic time has become a priority for business owners everywhere. They want jobs to run as efficiently as possible with minimum downtime and maximum productivity.

So when time and energy are lost due to hunting down tools, equipment and other inventory, it could mean significant dollars on a job and a missed opportunity to impress customers.

Luckily, new tracking and monitoring solutions are on the market today that can help plumbers keep track of their tools of the trade and help them run a smoother business. From in-dash computers on trucks to RFID and bar-code technology, owners today can be sure their team is using their work hours wisely and protecting assets at the same time.

The Tool Link homepage on Ford Work Solutions' in-dash computer

Ford Work Solutions

“When contractors are looking to upgrade their service trucks, they’re first interested in payload, towing capacity and fuel economy. They don’t think of their truck as a solution to productivity,” saysWilliam Frykman, Ford Motor Co.’s business and product development manager. New this year, Ford vehicle owners have the option of integrating a computer right into their trucks’ center stack. This not only connects drivers remotely to office or home computer desktops, it is also an important part of Ford’s new Tool Link system.

Tool Link is an automatic inventory management system developed through a partnership with tool manufacturer DeWalt and embedded RFID technology expert ThingMagic. It offers owners the chance to label and scan tools, equipment and assets using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags.

While the vehicle is running, antennas scan your cargo area for items on a preprogrammed inventory list. Data is transmitted to a reader mounted in the cab and displayed on the in-dash computer screen. It alerts the driver if any inventoried tools are missing from the truck.

RFID has been used by retailers to track merchandise for years. However, this is the first such application that tracks items in a vehicle.

Tools aren’t the only important item stocked on a truck. Tool Link RFID tags can be affixed to briefcases, portfolios and important business manuals needed to close a sale.

“When you sit down and pencil out the economics of how much time is truly lost because you don’t have the right tools to get the job done, over the lifetime of the vehicle, installing Tool Link makes a good proposition,” Frykman says.

The system operates from the 6.5 inch touch-screen computer, the core of Ford’s Work Solutions. Users create virtual “playlists” (e.g., Toilet Repair, Water Heater Replacement, Shower Remodel, etc.) and the tools necessary to finish the job are entered in. Tool Link scans the truck for the inventory, and an RFID “snapshot” of the truck’s contents quickly identifies any items missing from the vehicle.

For plumbers sending technicians out for particular tickets each day, having the necessary tools on board the first time means less of a chance the tech will need to leave a customer’s home to retrieve neglected tools or the downtime associated with delivering forgotten necessities. It also helps when heading home so items are not left at jobsites and susceptible to theft.

Fifty RFID tags are provided with each Tool Link system and come in two sizes (1/2-inch by 3-inch and 2-inch by 2-inch). Tags can be adhered directly to tools and high-value items or affixed with a zip tie. The system has no limit to the number of items it can scan and additional RFID tags can be added at any time.

“We understand this is first-in-the-industry technology,” admits Frykman. “However, skilled tradesmen are adapting new technology each day on the job. And smart business people are watching their costs.”

DeWalt's MobileLock

Press machines, torches, job boxes filled with tools - these are a plumber’s tools of the trade, but they’re also a target for thieves. Larger firms that utilize trailers, backhoes, skid steers or other heavy equipment are also susceptible to theft and tampering.

A recent Builder magazine survey found that 90 percent of contractors admitted they were victims of theft within the past year. Of those who reported thefts, 60 percent had been hit more than three times.

Jobsite tools and materials theft costs the construction industry more than $1 billion each year. And the dollar amount is not the only cost to be concerned with. Time is lost when tools must be reordered and replaced.

Installing DeWalt’s MobileLock sensor to high-value equipment not only alerts you (and up to three other individuals) when the item is being tampered with through vibration and temperature sensors, it can help you locate it via GPS to track it down for recovery.

The device lets you monitor your company’s gang boxes, tool trailers, remote storage containers and digging equipment, even copper wire spools and other construction materials left onsite. MobileLock provides managers the opportunity to stay informed of a disturbance to their equipment via e-mail and phone.

Dynamic Systems' wedge bar-code scanner turns your tool room into a 'library'.

Basic Tool Manager

Back at your warehouse, tracking employees who are checking out tools and inventory can get unmanageable quickly. One software developer hopes to streamline your home base with a system based on bar-code technology.

Dynamic Systems Inc. specializes in data collection applications. Its low-cost tool manager targets companies that want to reduce the loss of tools and save time tracking down equipment and assets.

“Loss of tools and malfunctioning equipment is a major overhead cost for the construction industry,” saysAlison Falco, president of DSI.

Basic Tool Manager tool-tracking software “turns your tool room into a library,” according to DSI. Tools are checked in and out to a person, department, workstation, vehicle, etc. The bar codes allow for classification of tools (e.g., high-value, low-value, expendables). It also allows for a complete audit trail, and tickler dates for tool returns and reservations.

The requirements for the system are a wedge bar-code scanner at a PC workstation or a hand-held bar-code terminal; preprinted bar-code labels or a label printer with label-design software; and specialized Tool Check In/Out software running on a PC workstation.

According to DSI, if it requires one minute checking a tool in and out, and if the company employees spend even 20 minutes a day searching for tools, the overhead savings is dramatic.

“Our customers see a typical payback for the Tool Manager within three to four months,” Falco says.