Airbus builds planes across Europe. At Filton, in south west England, it makes leading and trailing edges for wings, and the wing boxes that fit them to the planes fuselage, as well as a wide range of other parts. The wings are lifted and turned as they are built, using customised spreader beams, vacuum pads, and a range of slings and chains.

Wing sections are sent to Seville, in Spain, for assembly, and working parties from Filton often visit the Spanish plant. When they do, the rigging equipment they use can travel with them. Airbus wanted to ensure that all loose lifting equipment was inspected every six months, or more where it worked in chemical environments. The range of equipment used, and the long journeys much of it went on, made this difficult.

Back in 1996, Sutton had been appointed recently as rigging manager, but was stuck at home with a broken leg. Rather than leaving him with nothing to do, Airbus set him the task of devising a system to track the firms rigging equipment. He worked closely with the plant’s insurance inspectors, Bureau Veritas.

The basis of the system is that each item of equipment is tracked, all the way from the manufacturer. Airbus only works with suppliers who can provide equipment marked with a part number that fits Airbus’ in-house tracking system. Each piece of equipment carries a tag with a year and unit number.

Airbus Filton’s procurement staff are trained to recognise lifting equipment when it appears on an order. When it does, it is flagged up by them and marked for quarantine, so it can only be accepted on to the site by the rigging management team, or insurance inspectors. When new equipment comes on site, it is inspected, and a record of the inspection kept. Inspection logs, manuals, and any other documentation, are scanned and stored on a secure server, so that the history of any piece of equipment can be called up at the click of a mouse.

While this part of Sutton’s system ensures that the equipment is all identified and trackable, it doesn’t provide an easy way for lifting staff to see if the equipment is due for inspection. Sutton realised that a colour coded system of tags would ensure that items’ inspection dates could be clearly marked.

Under his initial scheme, a four colour system was used, with a different coloured tag for each three month period. This was simple, and made it easy to see when the equipment was past its inspection due date. On a site where equipment never travelled out of the system, this would work well. However, in Airbus, working parties from Filton often travel to plants across Europe, taking equipment with them. Often, they would be away long enough that when they returned their equipment appeared to be carrying the correct tag for safe use, when it was in fact a long way past its inspection due date.

A new system needed to be developed. Sutton and Bureau Veritas developed a 12 colour system instead. Cable ties were used, with the year the equipment would be due inspection marked on the tie. A second tag, on the tie, carries the inspection month, both in writing, and in a colour code. Under this system, it’s impossible for equipment to be incorrectly identified as safe to use. This system has now been rolled out to other sites inspected by Bureau Veritas, including aircraft engine makers Rolls Royce.

The plant’s working practices and physical layout support the system. Around the plant, specially designed stands hold the equipment that staff will need. Each stand is marked with the safe working load for the equipment it carries. Most of the stands are partnered by bright orange ‘non-retrieve’ cages. The cages have a hole in the top, for staff to deposit equipment if it loses its tag, or if it is damaged. The equipment inside cannot be reached from the top, but only from a locked door at the bottom of the cage. Only the rigging management team and the insurance inspectors have a key to this door.

The rigging management team and inspectors regularly empty the bins. If equipment has just lost a tag, it can be identified by its part number, and the correct tag replaced. If it may have been damaged, a proper inspection is carried out. If it can be reused, a new tag with a due date six months away, is fitted.

When equipment leaves the site, the system keeps working. It would be expensive to send an inspector out to Seville every time equipment needs to be checked, so instead equipment returns to base for inspection. As small pieces of equipment approach their inspection due date, replacements are flown out in a steel cargo box. Old equipment is sent back to Filton for testing. For larger pieces of equipment, such as pallet trucks, replacements are sent out by road. Rather than sending the old pieces of large equipment back a piece at a time, it works out cheaper to buy extra pieces, and send them back when there is enough to fill a truck.

Staff at Filton know that it’s a serious breach of safe working practices to use equipment that isn’t tagged, or is past its inspection due date, so the system rarely goes wrong. This year, the plant has not found a single piece of ‘maverick’ equipment, that falls out of the system. Last year, one piece of kit did manage to enter the system.

A supplier had sent a pallet load of goods to the plant. When it arrived, the supplier offered the pallet truck the goods came on, for free. As the truck had entered the system outside of the normal procurement process, it was able to escape quarantine and inspection. However, it was spotted on the same day by a member of staff, used to the routine of checking every piece of equipment for the correct tag. The truck was quarantined, immediately. The supplier, Sutton says, received a ‘stern email’, reminding them not to supply equipment outside of Filton’s tracking system.