FACTORY workers have become used to working with robots. Now they do not even have to talk to a fellow human when they are collecting replacement parts, thanks to the Automatic Tool Dispenser, a novel type of vending machine.
Developed in the US and already in use at such leading companies as Ford, Westinghouse and Bristol Myers Squibb, the system is about to become available in Britain through Seco Tools, one of the world's largest tool manufacturers and distributors.
The ATD machine was developed by Electronic Merchandising Systems of Cincinnati, Ohio, and is being marketed by a subsidiary, Vertex Technologies. Electronic Merchandising is a specialist in industrial control systems and advanced dispensing systems.
The idea with the ATD is that companies install the machines in strategic locations on the shop floor, in place of traditional tool cribs. Workers needing parts or tools can retrieve them quickly by using a bar- coded ID card and a personal code. By doing away with queues and reducing set-up times, the system helps increase productivity.
It also reduces wastage by allowing workers to return items when they have finished with them - "so that they are there for the next person, like a library system," said Kent Savage, president of Vertex Technologies, on a recent promotional visit to London.
Furthermore, linking the ATDs to a computer enables businesses to collect and analyse tool-usage information and improve re-ordering methods. It can also help to track the work rates of individual employees.
Mr Savage said the facility to update accounting and purchase records automatically was particularly important since the cost of processing purchasing orders often exceeds the cost of the order itself. …