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Could 'smart' tools be the future of maintenance?

Snap-on Industrial representative Matt Elliston shows Staff Sgt. Tommy James, 100th Maintenance Squadron propulsion systems craftsman, a digital inspection kit during a technology demonstration at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan. 31, 2019. The 100th MXS is seeking funds to purchase the kit, as well as a “smart toolbox” to free up more time to work on their aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

Snap-on Industrial representative Matt Elliston shows Staff Sgt. Tommy James, 100th Maintenance Squadron propulsion systems craftsman, a digital inspection kit during a technology demonstration at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan. 31, 2019. The 100th MXS is seeking funds to purchase the kit, as well as a “smart toolbox” to free up more time to work on their aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

A Snap-on “smart toolbox” is on display during a technology demonstration for the 100th Maintenance Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan. 31, 2019. The 100th MXS hopes to acquire funds to purchase the smart box to improve their accountability and inventory processes, creating more time to work on aircrafts and get them back up in the air to accomplish the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

A Snap-on “smart toolbox” is on display during a technology demonstration for the 100th Maintenance Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan. 31, 2019. The 100th MXS hopes to acquire funds to purchase the smart box to improve their accountability and inventory processes, creating more time to work on aircrafts and get them back up in the air to accomplish the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

A drawer is displayed from a “smart toolbox” during a technology demonstration for the 100th Maintenance Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan.31, 2019. The smart toolbox automatically issues out tools and performs inventory inspections using computer and camera control technology. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

A drawer is displayed from a “smart toolbox” during a technology demonstration for the 100th Maintenance Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England, Jan.31, 2019. The smart toolbox automatically issues out tools and performs inventory inspections using computer and camera control technology. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airmen Kelly O’Connor)

RAF MILDENHALL, England --

Airmen from the 100th Maintenance Squadron attended a technology demonstration to learn about the latest digital tools at RAF Mildenhall, Jan. 31, 2019.

A Snap-on Industrial representative showcased a digital tool box and digital inspection kit, which could help streamline the 100th MXS mission and push them toward becoming a more technologically advanced force.

The “smart toolbox” would improve the accountability and inventory processes, while the inspection kit would modernize the way maintainers perform inspections on an aircraft.  

“Our current state is dated with the old tool boxes being utilized here,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jacob McGhee, 100th Maintenance Squadron maintenance flight chief. “The ideal future state will be these new tool boxes with modern advances in technology. This demonstration is to show the capabilities of the tool box, how much quicker inventories can be accomplished, and how many people can work out of them.” 

Air Force bases like Lakenheath, Spangdahlem, and Tinker already use the smart toolbox, so the 100th MXS is pursuing the funds to follow their counterparts into the digital age of aircraft maintenance.

“We experience a lot of back and forth with checking out tools and inventorying the toolboxes that can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes,” McGhee said. “With this system it can be done in a matter of minutes, and have multiple technicians working out of the same box simultaneously.”

McGhee pointed out that the time the new toolbox would save goes back to maintaining an aircraft and getting it back up in the air.

“If you add that up over the course of a year, that’s huge,” he added.

The smart toolbox automatically issues out tools and performs inventory inspections on the box using computer and camera control technology. The accountability and inventory processes are vastly improved because the smart toolbox records everything, right down to the maintainer’s name and the tool they grabbed out of the box.

“I think the box is going to make the process of checking in and out tools a lot quicker, and we can see if there is a tool missing on the computer screen,” said Staff Sgt. Tommy James, 100th MXS propulsion systems craftsman. “As for the inspection tool kit, it’s awesome and will make inspections a lot less of a headache.”

The maintainers currently perform inspections by sticking a mirror attached to a rod inside a small opening of the plane while holding a flashlight in their other hand to illuminate the area and search for any potential issues. The real potential is that maintainers could inspect faster, easier, and more thoroughly with a digital inspection kit, which they don’t have in their possession yet. With the digital inspection kit, maintainers thread a camera with a built-in light into an opening and perform their inspection on a handheld recording device.

“We can get them if the funding is there,” McGhee said. “It’s going to be an investment, but the return as far as how much time we save our Airmen and give back to the aircraft is worth it.”

The 100th MXS needs nine digital tool boxes and six inspection kits worth about $260,000.

The investment would keep the Bloody Hundredth’s maintenance equipped to tackle future challenges more efficiently.