Big brother is watching your tools.

That's the idea behind a new tool-management system from the folks at Snap-on Industrial. ENR was invited to demo it on Jan. 26 at the Kenosha, Wis.-based tool company's sales meeting in Dallas.

If you work in a field that requires tight controls over foreign-object damage (FOD) or foreign-material exclusion (FME), such as aerospace or nukes—or if you work with large volumes of tools that are easily misplaced or stolen—pay attention to how this works.

First, you open the toolbox by swiping your keycard over the switchplate. If you are authorized, the box unlocks. A friendly voice says, "access granted."

You open a drawer and remove a pair of pliers from its foam pocket. You close the drawer.

Four, 5-megapixel cameras mounted across the top of the toolbox take pictures of the drawer as you close it. After shooting through a mirror that hangs over the front edge of the box, at 42 frames per second, the cameras stitch their images together.

See those odd little dots on the sides of the drawer? Those are reference points that help the cameras line up their shots. Snap-on says it borrowed this imaging technology from equipment it sells to help auto mechanics do wheel alignment.

You key in your work location, log out and the box locks. The PC grabs an image of the drawer as you left it and can send that image to the asset manager, along with info about what tools you took and where you plan to take them.

When it is time to return the tools, if you think you can cheat the system, well, you can. Because the tools do not have sensors on them, you theoretically can replace a replica of the tool you took in the foam drawer insert.

But if you try to replace a different item in that spot, such as a socket wrench instead of pliers, big brother is onto you.

It wasn't long ago that tool companies were toying around with technology like RFID chips to track tools. The problem is that 60% of the items in most toolboxes (think sockets and bits) are smaller than the chips. And the chips themselves become foreign-object hazards.

Snap-on is arguing for fewer sensors, chips and wires in the war against lost and stolen tools. "Our position was, we don't want to create a problem by solving another," said Pat McDevitt, business development manager.

The downside to this philosophy is that you can't track the exact location of the tool once it leaves its cozy foam pocket. But Snap-on says that if your quality controls aren't already tight, you may not be ready for this type of system.

Snap-on will have a booth at the upcoming CONEXPO-CON/AGG show this March in Las Vegas. The Automated Tool Control system, as it's called, is available in a 36-in.-wide box for a retail price of $21,000 and a 54-in.-wide box for $26,000 (not including tools). That's about 50% more what you would pay for a box equipped with all the bells and whistles less the imaging system (a stripped-down, 36-in. box costs $6,500).

Considering that the tools inside cost thousands of dollars more than the box, in many cases, this added control may be money well spent.

Follow me on Twitter @DoctorDiesel.