Manufacturing AUTOMATION

RFID in manufacturing

May 10, 2006
By Alix Russell

Most manufacturers are aware of the benefits that radio frequency identification (RFID) can bring to the supply chain, but they often overlook the technology’s opportunity in manufacturing processes. RFID can address numerous manufacturing challenges, including security, quality control, production execution and asset management. When implementing the technology in a manufacturing environment, however, the key is not the tag, the reader or the part identification. Rather, it is the data that can be obtained. The objective is to use RFID to become a data-enabled enterprise, a manufacturer that obtains data and uses the information to further its competitive edge.

Production processes are typically in a better position to harness the value and positive return on investment provided by RFID-collected data because they take place in a closed-loop environment where the RFID investment ó the tags ó is repeatedly used. Users can also take advantage of the existing process automation infrastructure inherent in most manufacturing facilities.

RFID can bridge the gap between manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and the production floor. The technology has the ability to provide the enabling data at a much greater level of accuracy, timeliness and detail than other alternatives. The following are some examples of how RFID can be applied in the manufacturing environment.

RFID can be used to control various aspects of security on the plant floor. It can replace the need for passwords for process control and parameter changes. It can assist in applications where there are issues with operators logging in and leaving; multiple operators working from the same node with different security requirements; or supervisors forgetting to log out. RFID can link the user, machine and task together to verify that only qualified people are maintaining and operating the equipment. It can also allow users to track which employees have done which task, as a means of controlling quality and safety.


OPEL, a car manufacturer in Europe owned by General Motors, uses RFID to solve security issues. Its production process requires that systems and computers be specially configured via about 650 programs to initiate different production steps. Today, each worker has a glass transponder on a key ring. The glass shell protects against dirt, moisture, impact and temperature. If an individual wants access to the control panel of a particular machine, the personís transponder must be verified by the reader before new data can be entered. Using RFID, the company achieved its goals of reducing input errors, monitoring and logging security and task information, and protecting sensitive system data. Changes are time- and date-stamped with the tag ID, creating a historical log for root cause analysis in the event of problems.

Quality control
Companies are continually looking for ways to improve quality. When a process requires certain materials, when formulations dictate certain aspects of manufacturing, or when sensitive materials can expire from exposure to excessive heat or elapsed time, RFID may be the solution. RFID tags can track products through production, reporting data as required at critical stages. In addition, data enabled by RFID can meet Six Sigma or Kaizen real-time data requirements for statistical and root cause analysis. For validation, RFID can provide the data needed to ensure clean-in-place (CIP) or sterilization has occurred. In the life sciences industry, it is not uncommon for work orders to be paper-based, especially with critical documents for validation and history. Tags embedded directly onto documents can become an automatic, reliable method for creating the work order audit trail and ensuring the correct process of the work order.

A pharmaceutical company uses RFID for process monitoring and validation. During production, 1,000 bottles are loaded onto metal racks, which are moved into an autoclave for sterilization at 120 C. If there is any doubt about correct time or temperature of sterilization, the complete batch must be destroyed. Previously, product tracking and control measures were done manually, which allowed room for error. To solve this problem, the company installed a conveyor system to automatically move the racks. RFID tags are used to track and validate each rack through sterilization, operating within various environmental constraints including high heat, line of sight and stainless steel racking.

Production execution
RFID can also provide users with the real-time data needed in production execution. Consider applications where it is critical to ensure correct labour, machine, tool, materials and components are available and ready. The read-write capabilities of RFID can be used to control, modify and reconfigure production steps based on inbound materials and assemblies.

For example, BMW needed flexible automobile assembly in a plant where every car is assembled according to the purchaserís custom order. With varying options for colour, engine, trim and tires, there could be hundreds of variations in the line. The solution BMW is using is to attach RFID tags, programmed with each vehicleís specifications, to the skid that carries each car. As the skid moves through each station, the operator or robot reads the information on the tag and manages the steps according to the data received.

A hot topic in many industries, especially food and life sciences, is the need for thorough product and material tracking and genealogy. Legal requirements, such as the United States FDA Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, mandate that food companies need to comply with product tracking throughout the supply chain. This, combined with other issues such as recalls, creates the need for increased visibility of raw ingredients through the manufacturing process. RFID can be used as an enabler for genealogical tracking by recording such relevant information as product identification, time-stamp, physical characteristics, lot numbers and disposition at each stop through the production process. It creates the ability to retrace when, where and under what circumstances a specific unit was made, and to identify manufacturing success or failure. RFID can create finer data granularity over other types of data collection, right down to the batch, lot or item.

Northern Fine Foods, a manufacturer of processed meats and cheeses, uses RFID for raw material and product tracking. Operators install RFID tags on the pallets or containers of raw ingredients when they are received from each supplier. The tags are integrated into a data tracking system that indicates which containers are to be used and when, with alerts if any container is nearing expiration. RFID is also used for their work in process (WIP) requirements. Once the ingredients are mixed, batches are placed in racks for cooking, chilling and aging. Tags are applied to these racks to automatically read and record at each production step, give information for the next step, and alert when the duration of a particular step is not correct.

Asset management
Manufacturers pursue lean manufacturing and just-in-time methodologies to obtain the benefits of reduced inventory. Some manufacturers, however, build up inventory to handle unforeseen circumstances, or because they do not have an accurate representation of WIP. RFID can improve inventory visibility and tracking within the manufacturing operation.

Asset utilization in a closed-loop system is often a great way to gain experience with RFID and drive overall equipment efficiency. Another driver for equipment efficiency in highly automated facilities is through maintenance, repair and overhaul activities. These processes are supported by computerized maintenance and management system (CMMS) applications, and are becoming one of the top priority applications within facilities. RFID-enabled data can fulfill CMMS requirements of providing detailed, accurate and timely data. With RFID, many types of data can be ascertained, including location on the floor, usage or maintenance history, information on cleaning and sterilization, and validation for use for particular lines or ingredients.

Let goals be your guide
When considering the implementation of RFID, it is essential to avoid the “tag first” approach–looking at tag capabilities and then trying to force it to fit into operations. Before examining any RFID project, manufacturing goals and data requirements need to be outlined. Ultimately, success comes not from the technology itself, but from how it is integrated into an enterprise’s systems and business processes to support overall operations and create that data-enabled enterprise.

Alix Russell is the manager of new projects at Cougar Automation Technologies based in Woodbridge, Ont.

Checklist for implementing data projects
For an RFID project to succeed, it is necessary to approach the business problem and potential solution using a systems approach. RFID systems should be conceived, designed and implemented using a systematic development process in which end-users and specialists design RFID systems based on an analysis of the organizationís business requirements. At a basic level, the following eight-step process should be followed:

1) Clearly define the objectives: Establish goals to be achieved or problems to be solved.

2) Education and awareness: Get the functional organization involved to take ownership of the project.

3) Analyse the business case:
• Understand the functional process and benefits. The objective is to quantify and measure the benefits and establish the ROI.
• Develop a plan for the data management.
• Examine data collection, storage and business rules for data interpretation and how this data will be used to improve your current process.
• Ensure that the projectís objectives and cost profiles are aligned with overall company budgets and operational plans.

4) Establish the technology.

5) Do a pilot.

6) Analyse results and ROI.

7) Roll out.

8) Keep analysing and improving: Set up an ongoing process to monitor and adjust as changes occur in requirements or technology capabilities.

By Bob Moroz, R. Moroz Ltd., and Katherine van Nes, Cougar Automation Technologies Inc.

Print this page


Story continue below