New tool vending and vending-related solutions inspired in part by Industry 4.0 have been popping up on the horizon recently, with a shared aim to provide manufacturers with better, leaner ways to manage and dispense items to the shopfloor. Raoul Rapke, Director of Commodity Tool Management Services at IMC Group, gives an overview of options that are harnessing the most relevant, exciting Industry 4.0-inspired developments to maximise and harmonise production efficiency.

Compact smart vending

Big bulky machines have their place, but they will never be fully point-of-use or provide the smart manufacturing cell with its own autonomy. Some suppliers offer bench-top units that are compact in size but pack a punch well above their weight when it comes to features. They typically offer a full software suite and provide 100% control and accountability per bin or per individual item. This makes them ideal for the modern shopfloor, where the machining process and selection of cutting tools cannot be compromised.


Mobility has been one of the catch words of the last decade or so. Today we take it for granted that our office, social activities and more sit in our pocket. Users expect to be able to transact and track tool crib activity on the go. A new generation of Android-based hand-held devices – each one loaded with a rich menu of reports and data presented in a mobile friendly format –  allows users to see what’s happening.

These devices can be a full substitute for those old cumbersome Windows CE hand-held devices that you needed to lug around to issue items from stock in your warehouse or tool room. You can be sure that the user interface is what you’d expect of a modern Android-based app, with a clear uncluttered interface that gives you just enough of the information you need to promptly and easily carry out day to day transactions.

And there’s more good news – the Android devices are usually a fraction of what you used to pay for the older Windows-based systems. There are also some great devices out there that combine a professional 2D scanner within a rugged hand-held device that sits comfortably in the palm of your hand, supported by convenient accessories like a trigger for heavy-duty scanning.

The Internet of Things

Recently a number of unique ideas have surfaced that bring the Internet of Things (IoT) to the shopfloor in a manner that doesn’t require complicated and expensive installation, or subscription fees that can virtually break the bank. One such innovation is the integration of real-time location systems (RLTS) into a host of production assets that tend to be very nomadic, such as gauges, fixtures, measuring devices, test equipment and more. Knowing where they hide out can save money by lowering capital investment and reducing downtime.

There are various different technologies out there using RFID (passive) and BLE (active Bluetooth low energy). The trick with all this stuff is to make it simple to use and focused on what the end user really needs. Flashy dashboards with tons of graphs and analytics look great, but it’s usually just a simple location ID that allows the user to quickly locate an asset.

Accuracy can be affected by the physical environment, and where and how many gateways are deployed to receive data transmissions. However, knowing the general position, within a metre or so, will normally be enough, and the current technologies can deliver on this. Metrics that log and analyse location history allow for greater optimisation in the use of production assets for further indirect cost savings.

Smart manufacturing

RFID chips on tooling and adapters can be loaded with tool assembly and other production data to allow for an error-free experience at the point of use. Tooling is placed in a modular housing where the chip data is read and transmitted to the tool management software, which then limits vending to tools that have been authorised for the job. The cost of using the wrong tool can be exorbitant and lead to scrapped parts, delayed orders and risks compromising the reputation of the manufacturer. In aerospace, for example, eliminating the risk of using the wrong tool is mandatory and non-negotiable. Where the bill of materials is fixed, this technology will be extremely useful.

Cloud tool and data management

Several companies already offer cloud-based applications to find, select and assemble the right tools for the job. Many cutting tool manufacturers develop and offer digital catalogues and tool selection apps. Integrating these with job planning and vending platforms makes sense. When creating the job, you want to know the most basic of things: Is my preferred tool in stock? And can I reserve it, so it won’t be used for another job in the meantime? Some vending systems offer this important integration.

Real-time data analysis

Pulling it all together with advanced reporting options, analytics and customisation is essential for targeted and efficient navigation through the huge quantities of data a vending system can generate. This includes thousands of stock keeping units (SKUs), hundreds of thousands of transactions, multiple users, cost centres, logistics parameters and more. Mining out what you need and calculating the performance metrics will make all the difference between staying ahead or drowning in all that data.

The above innovations already provide us with tangible advances, bridging the gap between the past and the future smart factory – where automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), artificial intelligence and robotics will probably deliver tools to the point of use just in time.