by George Weimer, contributing editor
It’s been a long time since a technology has so captured manufacturing’s attention as has automatic identification (Auto ID), and specifically radio frequency identification (RFID). After a push by the world’s largest company, Wal-Mart, and another push from the Department of Defense (DoD) (see MHM December 2003), the use of RFID has started to move into the mainstream of manufacturing — albeit in a pilot-like way. It’s the larger companies that are willing to try this new technology, which, after all, is largely untested on the plant floor. Imagination RFID has captured; implementation is another matter. "I suggest a wait-and-see approach," says Brian Moore, senior support engineer, Glacier Computer LLC, Amherst, New Hampshire. "Let the big boys get their standards in order. A lot needs to be worked out and we won’t see RFID being as common as bar coding for maybe three to four years."
Glacier, however, is getting ready in terms of the wireless computers it has already in numerous customer plants on lift trucks and industrial trucks. "To convert to RFID on any of our products, you would use the PC card slot," Moore explains.
Not to be misunderstood, Moore says the development of RFID for industrial use is a major change in the way logistics and manufacturing operate. Others agree.
What the switchover to RFID means for manufacturing is a terrific boost in the drive to automation. With the advent of mobile, portable RFID devices, the need to bring products or cartons past a fixed identification station disappears as well.
Fulfilling dreams in industry
"RFID offers a means of implementing new quality control systems," says Stuart Itkin, vice president — marketing, Zebra Technologies Corp., Vernon Hills, Illinois. The technology is still evolving, but its true value in logistics for manufacturing will be to enable industry to do things only dreamed of previously. He points to his company’s "Alchemy," a trademarked device that will convert a label within a printer into a smart label or plain paper, depending upon what is being used in terms of technology. Alchemy brings the cost of smart labels down while guaranteeing 100 percent AQL. This product will be available later in 2004.
Zebra is one of the pioneers in the RFID field and has been in the business for some eight years. It already has printer/encoder products in the industrial market in pilot projects worldwide. For some time, the reluctance of many in industry to move into RFID has been cost. "Well, the cost comes down with volume and the high volume is going to follow Wal-Mart and DoD," Itkin explains. While some may debate the time frame for manufacturing’s total adoption of RFID, few say it won’t happen. One reason for that certainty, besides the decline in overall costs, is the remarkable mobility RFID offers industrial and warehousing users. "These are devices that can be carried around on the shop floor or warehouse. It’s creating this growing trend in manufacturing and logistics to have mobility and to bring the printers and the scanners to the goods." This is, of course, just the opposite of what has been the case in factories since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Advice to manufacturers and warehouse managers? While the Zebra vice president does not suggest sitting on the sidelines, he does say to study the technology and learn how to take advantage of new tools like RFID and WiFi . They are going to impact production and inventory control like nothing ever has.
Another leader/pioneer in the field is Intermec Technologies Corp., Everett, Washington. Don Bodnar, director of product marketing for Intermec, agrees that RFID is the main excitement in industrial technology today. "RFID is impacting everything. Of course, Wal-Mart’s requirements have a lot to do with that, much as they did with bar codes," Bodnar notes.
Like many others in the business, he says the development of RFID in manufacturing will follow the same path as bar coding. Wal-Mart and DoD were the big pushers then as well, Bodnar points out. "And, with the technology now, in effect mandated by those two huge customers of almost everybody, we will see that RFID eliminates human error, improves efficiency, and security is better as well," he predicts.
Bar codes are not going away
There are, however, special considerations that need to be addressed by plant floor managers before RFID will be successful. "You need to have the appropriate software for ERP and we certainly don’t suggest you go from pencil and paper right to an RFID system. Further, bar codes may not contain enough information. But keep in mind that RFID does not replace bar codes. It augments bar codes," says Bodnar. While RFID has made little penetration into heavy industry, some companies have been experimenting. One heavy truck manufacturer uses RFID tags for its diesel engine block line, Bodnar notes. "It’s been used in some auto plants for 10 years," he adds.
Rockwell Software’s Mike Pantaleano, middleware product manager, notes that what everyone is really talking about in terms of automatic identification is "all the layers between PLCs and everything else. Our products like our RSlinx and others are what is called HMI products, or the human machine interface. All the big software players are in this HMI market." The trend now, including the use of RFID on the factory floor, is for "the customer to become more and more capable of analysis of data as well as the transmission of data. You can do more historical analysis of individual machines now," Pantaleano says. "In effect, these new software products allow manufacturing managers and engineers to get real-time data and decision assistance.
"Another interesting trend, which will be spurred by RFID and related technologies, is that the information technology [IT] department has, for generations, been separate from the rest of the corporation. Consolidation of corporate IT is a world trend in manufacturing. This was spurred by Y2K," Pantaleano points out. Manufacturing management and engineering today are more info management savvy than ever, and RFID will only add more impetus to that trend, Pantaleano predicts.
Other Intermec executives agree and note that the amazing growth of IT and emerging technologies like RFID spur globalization as well. Kristi Urich, director of industry marketing, says the huge market that is the medium-sized manufacturer is typically more cost sensitive. These new software systems, like an Easy ADC system coming soon from Intermec, are not dumbed-down versions of the kinds used by the larger companies, she adds.
Integration or just compliance?
Intermec is partnering to produce these new systems with Microsoft, adds Jeff Johnson, Intermec global alliance manager.
"Research with Microsoft shaved a lot of cost from the product. Payback is less than a year," says Urich.
"We are in a global alliance with Microsoft to drive ROI with information. The details of how this partnership can help small and medium-sized manufacturers is on the Web at Intermec.com/mbs," says Johnson. Intermec is also offering an RFID compliance kit for companies interested in how to get ready for what seems to be right around the corner.
HighJump Software, a 3M Co., Eden Prairie. Minnesota, is a supply chain software provider with some 700 clients. About 600 of those are in manufacturing, points out Chris Heim, president. How many are moving into RFID in significant ways now? Zero. All of them, however, are trying to educate their workforces about this promising technology, he adds.
"Yes, there have been pilot efforts in automotive, in terms of embedded tags in tires," adds Joe Blauert, HighJump director of data collection group. In general, however, the bulk of the companies that have moved into RFID applications are doing it because of "compliance" with DoD and Wal-Mart.
The idea, the HighJump executives point out, is to research where RFID fits into a manufacturing company’s overall lean manufacturing plan and its strategy to move into ever-higher levels of automation. "Integration is the key," says Blauert. In terms of the large number of suppliers in RFID, "The shakeout is already beginning. Check out the staying power of your supplier," adds Heim.
Paul Lightfoot, CEO, AL Systems Inc., Rockaway, New Jersey, points out that the switch to RFID, smart labels and tags, and related automatic identification technologies, in terms of retail, is largely a matter of labor savings and quality control.
The supply chain being most immediately affected begins typically with manufactured finished clothing and toys or parts of clothing in the Far East, which are destined for markets all over the world including the largest market — the U.S. Retailers are starting to lower costs of identifying and labeling their inbound merchandise to be crossdocked with automated print-and-apply systems.
What’s the attraction of RFID? "There’s no issue in terms of line-of-sight as there is in traditional bar code scanners," Lightfoot answers. "Also, you can account for each item in a carton, without opening that carton. That is a terrific labor savings.
WhereNet Corp. announced earlier in the year that it has installed its wireless tracking and parts replenishing systems in some 70 automotive plants including Ford, GM and NUMMI, the GM-Toyota joint assembly plant. These systems basically automate inventory management for various assembly operations. Using WhereNet’s real-time locating system (RTLS) and a wireless local area network (WLAN), they help move the car makers into lean manufacturing.
Meridian Automotive Systems Inc., Dearborn, Michigan, makes numerous interior parts and assemblies for cars. It needed a communications system that fit its network of 22 plants in North America. It went with a wireless, though not RFID, system called QuikTrac from Integrated Bar Coding of Adrian, Michigan, which allows workers to use some 50 hand-held scanners to keep track of hundreds of parts and jobs.
The automotive supply chain is full of companies that have moved into bar coding and wireless systems for inventory control and tracking. In fact, in large plant manufacturing, the use of bar codes and scanners is what you might call "mature." Not so with RFID.
One joint effort, which is working on standards for RFID in industry, is the EPCglobal effort co-chaired by Wal-Mart and Intermec. Meanwhile, thousands of manufacturing companies are new students of a new technology.
"Yes, the technology has been getting a lot of press, but take a deep breath first," advises Bonney Shuman, CEO of Stratix Corp., Norcross, Georgia. The systems integration leader adds that industry should not think just in terms of compliance with large customers’ mandates, but consider real applications. Like Bodnar and others, she also says, "RFID is not a replacement technology, but rather complementary to bar coding or for applications where bar coding doesn’t work well. What we’re facing now, particularly in manufacturing, is an educational task."
"What RFID offers is the enhancement of automation as well as the ability to react and redirect product flow more efficiently," adds Greg Gilbert, product development, RFID, Manhattan Associates, Atlanta. His firm’s middleware software product offers ways for companies to integrate RFID into their supply chain.
Introduced late last year, middleware "leverages our RFID domain expertise, experiences gained through our involvement in the Auto-ID Center [the MIT center for research on ADC], as well as partnerships we have formed with leaders in the RFID industry such as Symbol Technologies, Alien Technology Corp., Seimens Dematic and Zebra Technologies," says Eric Peters, senior vice president, products and strategy at Manhattan Associates.
Notes Mark Hansinger, director of marketing, Avery Dennison Printer Systems, Philadelphia: "Wal-Mart has changed the use of RFID for everyone. In five years or so, RFID will be mainstream." In terms of manufacturing, Hansinger and other experts see the use of RFID offering wonderful advantages, especially in terms of the new read/write technologies.
New products that are moving RFID into the mainstream include smart printers like those from Intermec, Avery Dennison and others.
Recently, Avery Dennison Printer Systems brought out a version of its 64-bit 6400 series high-speed tag and label printers with Zebra ZPL emulation. That means that the 6400 series is now compatible with existing Zebra products. Simple plug-in works in most cases, notes Hansinger. This means companies can replace less efficient printers with the 64-bit technology without having to reconfigure software or data streams. The new line includes the 6405, which has a built-in feature called Ribbon Saver that lifts the print head when there are blank sections on the label. In addition to offering 40 percent to 50 percent savings on ribbon cost, the action of lifting the print head guards against damage to the RFID chip and prevents smudging to printed labels, Avery Dennison explains. These new products are good examples of ways now available to manufacturers seeking higher levels of automation. In fact, it is the automation goal itself that is driving much of the switchover to RFID in industry, adds Gene Korzeniewski, manager product development.
Too much hype?
"There’s been so much hype about all of this," warns Joe H. Jiner, director of business development, logistics and RFID, The Kennedy Group, Willoughby, Ohio, "that we forget that we’re dealing with physics here. It’s not simple. It isn’t just a matter of ‘slap and ship,’ as so many have tried to do as they attempt to comply.
"Put your team together, keep your eyes open and avoid negative attitudes about all this," Jiner advises. "We have established a Customer Solutions Center for manufacturers that have questions about this. There are various routes a manufacturing company can take to learn about RFID. One, of course, is to try learning about it themselves. Another is to hire a consulting firm. A third way would be our new center."
Finally, it will cost some bucks to comply with Wal-Mart and DoD. Wal-Mart wants each case of goods tagged with a smart label. It wants it all UHF 900, class 1 and class 0. DoD, on the other hand, is UHF and also 13.56. Being compatible means an expense up front.
The handwriting is on the wall and it’s RFID for manufacturing in a big way in a few months. MHM
Bar Code Scanning Helps Listowel Improve Shop Accuracy
Declining prices and increasing demands for quality and variety forced Listowel, an automotive parts supplier based in Ontario, to upgrade its shop floor data-capture and information distribution system. The company makes plastic injection-molded glove boxes, dashboards, center consoles and kicker panels for assembly into SUVs, sedans and minivans.
Twenty trucks a day deliver these parts from Listowel. With more than 1,400 labels produced each day, it was difficult to tell quickly which part should receive which label. Automating data collection and information distribution reduces or eliminates errors.
Listowel selected Epic Data’s Java-based eXpresso software platform. eXpresso meshes seamlessly with any ERP system and integrates a variety of hardware and software products. It also allows an organization to unify its standalone systems and eliminate "islands of automation" by meshing the information flows enterprise-wide. Two-way information visibility was seen as central to giving employees the information they needed to improve performance.
Labels can’t be printed and removed from the computer screen until a staff member verifies the accuracy by scanning the part’s bar code against the work order. The new system also prevents preprinting labels, to ensure that double-checking always occurs. Errors dropped from 40 per month to less than one.
All inventory changes are recorded automatically in real time. The need for inventory counts went from once per month to every three months.
For the full story, go to www.totalsupplychain.com, MHM, Articles, Industry News, "How Listowel Improved Shop Floor Accuracy."
AIDC System Markets Expand
According to a recent report by Venture Development Corp., "Global Markets for AIDC Systems Application Software, Volume IV: Manufacturing Shop-floor Application Software," revenues for automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) manufacturing shop-floor application software will approach $135 million by 2007.
Several markets will contribute significantly to this growth:
Pharmaceutical manufacturing will grow as the U.S. FDA investigates new standards for track-and-trace procedures as well as anti-counterfeiting measures.
The semiconductor and electronics industries are large supporters of inspection software, particularly for the automated silicon wafer and integrated circuit inspection process.
Standardization drives AIDC system adoption with the automotive industry. Manufacturers are more likely to invest in software and hardware as the Automotive Industry Action Group continues to issue regulations governing standard usage for AIDC technologies.
Retail supply chain continues to provide opportunities for AIDC software. Supply chain management applications using RFID technology will continue to develop and expand, offering significant growth opportunities to an expansive field of software vendors, hardware manufacturers and third-party integrators.
For more information, contact any of the following sources:
AL Systems Inc., www.alsysinc.com
Alien Technology Corp., www.alientechnology.com
Anthro Corp., www.anthro.com
Avery Dennison, www.averydennison.com
Checkpoint Systems Inc., www.checkpointsystems.com
Glacier Computer LLC, www.glaciercomputer.com
HighJump Software, www.highjump.com
Integrated Bar Coding, www.intbarcode.com
Intermec Technologies Corp., www.intermec.com
Manhattan Associates, www.manh.com
Meridian Automotive Systems Inc., www.meridianautosystems.com
Rockwell Software, www.rockwellsoftware.com
Siemens Dematic, www.siemens-dematic.com
Stratix Corp., www.stratixcorp.com
Symbol Technologies, www.symbol.com
The Kennedy Group, www.kennedygrp.com
WhereNet Corp., www.wherenet.com
Zebra Technologies Corp., www.zebra.com