Prevention is key: RFID in manufacturing

The use of radio frequency identification (RFID) to track and tag objects dates back to the 1940s. Nowadays, not only does RFID help supply chain visibility, but it is also used to improve inventory management and operational efficiency, reduce labor costs, and enhance information accuracy.

These benefits are helping to spur the growth of the global RFID market, which is expected to reach US$11.6 billion in 2018, according

to a report by Frost & Sullivan. Continuous research and development in the RFID industry along with growing end-user awareness are thought to be some of the main drivers for growth.

However, 1 of the main challenges facing the market is the hesitation of end users to invest in a technology that has a higher price tag than other systems such as barcodes. Without sufficient knowledge of the benefits of RFID and concerns that customer return on investment (ROI) does not match its startup costs, growth in the RFID market has been hindered.

1 way manufacturers are utilizing RFID to not only improve their ROI but also the overall efficiency of their facility is by using RFID technology on the production line. Manufacturers are no longer looking to just track products throughout the production process, but use RFID to detect errors during the processes before they become major problems down the line. By using RFID for both error detection and production efficiency, manufacturers are able to save both time and money.

Early Detection Means Savings

Not falling behind schedule on a production line is extremely important in a manufacturing facility. Manufacturers are on strict deadlines set by customers to get their products to them in a timely manner. One delay on one production line not only costs the facility time, but starts a chain of events that can end up costing the facility a lot of money.

In order to stop problems on the production line before they get too far out of control, manufacturers across industries have begun taking advantage of RFID technology in helping to reduce errors.

Brian Ma, Sales Representative at GIGA-TMS, a manufacturer of RFID readers and antennas, pointed out that every RFID project is unique with its own set of challenges. “Every successful ultra-high frequency (UHF) project has 3 major components — the transponder, the antenna, and the reader. All 3 of them have to be carefully chosen and configured.” As such, finding the right equipment can be a RFID project’s biggest challenge.

Error Detection in Textile Printing 
Textile printing factories receive large shipments of fabric bundles for printing. Several shades of the same color, which are difficult to distinguish, may come to a factory for printing. This can easily lead to errors if a worker is told to simply pull a general color and throw it onto the line. If a mistake is made and the wrong bundle gets put onto the production line, not only is precious time wasted, but money and resources as well. To cut back on errors, a top textile printing factory, which prints for internationally known brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, etc., wanted to find a solution that would help detect errors. Ultimately, a passive UHF RFID solution by GIGA-TMS was chosen.

A passive UHF RFID solution was chosen for this project for several reasons, as pointed out by Ma. First, UHF RFID has a longer reading range than either low-frequency (LF) or high-frequency (HF) RFID tags, which is useful in a high-volume industrial setting. UHF RFID is also highly configurable as well as reusable. In this particular case, the reusable nature of the UHF RFID tag was a deciding factor for whether or not the factory opted to deploy a RFID solution.

Unlike barcodes that cannot be reused, some UHF RFID tags can not only be reused hundreds of times, but can also withstand extreme temperatures. In this case, the factory needed the tags to be able to be reused at least 700 times in extremely high temperatures. Another advantage is that UHF RFID has multi-tag detection capabilities, which can save a lot of time when dealing with large quantities of fabric shipments. However, these advantages do come at a price — at over $1 per tag this technology does not come cheap. For this reason, UHF RFID tags are most often used to track items of high value, advised Ma.

Despite this, ROI for this technology will come to surface as long as end users are willing to invest in the costs for initial implementation and time to figure out the best solution.

Mistakes in the printing process can cost the factory up to $100,000, according to Ma. This is not because the fabric itself is expensive, but because 1 mistake pushes back the entire printing process. Reducing the amount of errors on the production line, as well as being able to track fabric bundles throughout the entire printing process allows management to make sure the right fabric is being printed on. In the event an alarm is set off, management is able to fix the problem before it is too late.

Additionally, the RFID information can be used to see which employees are most efficient. Since tags also record the duration of an item at a station, management can see which workers work most efficiently and which workers waste the most time.

Saving that “Cheddar” 
The cheese-making process is a time-sensitive process. Any mistake in the amount of time a batch of cheese is heated, cooled, and soaked results in the entire batch being thrown out. This not only wastes resources, but time as well.

Tnuva, a global dairy products company, had already implemented RFID technology to track the cheese production process on the conveyor belt at one of their sites. The company wanted to expand their use of RFID to more of their sites on some of the more complex processes that the cheese must pass through before being shipped out. Logitag, a RFID company, who implemented the initial solution, chose to expand the solution by deploying active RFID tags on the carts that move cheese through coolers, heaters, and pools of saline water, and passive UHF tags to track the cheese post-production.

Logitag had to deal with many challenges when choosing what type of RFID technology to use in the cheese factories. The harsh environment of the cheese manufacturing process posed a problem for RFID technology, as a large amount of metal and liquid are present in the factories. As a result, Logitag recommended different types of RFID technology to each of the different sites. Since both metal and liquid can compromise UHF RFID transmissions, both LF and active RFID tags were deployed. Using LF 125 kHz tags from HID Global to tag each box filled with cheese molds, Logitag’s reader and software were used to read the information on the tag, which included time, date, and batch number. The tags are read along five different points throughout the production process. If any abnormalities occur during the process, an alarm is sounded, notifying management and giving them time to save the batch before it is too late. This has saved Tnvua money by reducing the number of batches that would have been discarded if Logitag’s software had not detected the problem.

With the information gathered from the RFID technology, Tnuva was also able to improve production efficiency by adjusting production processes, according to Shlomo Matityaho, CEO of Logitag. “There are many kinds of organizations where the production processes are not so organized. Cases like Tnuva are a very good example where RFID creates a very organized process. In this way, RFID technology can create market change in production.”

Not all Fun and Games

While RFID — whether it be active or passive, LF, HF, or UHF — have many advantages, the technology is not perfect and has limitations like any other technology. RFID tags cannot be bent, nor can holes be punched into them without it damaging the data. Also, RFID readers are prone to being flooded with data by RFID tags with longer detection ranges. Pallets full of RFID tags may get read every time they pass a reader if the sensitivity is set too high. Additionally, a general lack of know-how on how to properly, efficiently, and successfully implement RFID solutions, specifically UHF, means that more time is needed before the use of RFID in manufacturing for more than just tracking becomes common place.

Credit: https://www.asmag.com/mobile/article_detail.aspx?aid=16424

Brian Ma is the Project Manager at SCANNEL RFID with years of experience in the RFID Field applied in various industries such as Transportation, Textile, Security, Gaming, etc.