People often talk glowingly of ‘disruptive innovations.’ But often even more valuable is an innovation that can generate dramatic improvements without disruption. Omni-ID’s visual RFID tags, which combine an RFID tag with an E Ink display (see The Value of Dynamic Visual Tags) are a good example of this, as a drop-in replacement for paper-based processes such as Kanban tickets, recipe cards, or build instruction sheets. An example of the latter would be on an automotive assembly line (of which Omni-ID has a number of customers), where each car frame travelling down the line is customized with its own combination of doors, interior, electronics, and options. Normally there is a paper build sheet clipped to the car. That is replaced with a visual RFID tag, which has several advantages. It can display just the specific instructions for each step of the way as it travels down the line. It can act as a checklist, when each step being checked off as it is done (sometimes automatically by interfacing directly with the machinery being used to apply the components). By tagging the options being attached as well (or as often done, tagging the tote containing the options), the system can validate that the right option is being applied to the right frame, reducing mistakes and expensive, wasteful rework. This also provides the benefit of dynamic instructions, such as instructions on where to send a defective part.
Another example use of the visual tag is managing work-in-progress inventory in the plant. Omni-ID provides a complete system, including WIP-tracking and production tracking software, and the visual tags used at Whirlpool’s Clyde, OH plant, the world’s largest washing machine plant, cranking out a complete new washer every few seconds. Whirlpool makes 28 different styles of white washer lids, many of which are virtually impossible to tell apart without very close painstaking inspection. These are put on racks that may contain over 25 lids each. There are more than 20 process steps each lid has to go through as it travels through the plant. Keeping track of thousands of virtually identical looking lids and making sure they end up in the right place is extremely difficult.
Whirlpool puts a visual tag on each of the racks. The system counts as lids come off the line at each step, to keep track of exactly how many are on each rack. Then the visual tag tells the forklift driver exactly where to deliver the rack. At the destination, the system counts as they are taken off the rack and onto the next step. The forklift driver is warned if the rack is taken to the wrong location. With the variety of locations and steps in this plant, an automated material handling system is not feasible. With this combination of technology, you get the reliability and low error rates typically delivered by automated handling equipment, but with the flexibility of a human-based handling system—the best of both worlds. And without having to change the way the work is done—just dropping in visual tags where paper used to be. Now that’s a non-disruptive innovation!
The other big advantage of using visual tags is in quality holds. Whenever a quality defect is discovered in a part and the defect impacts the whole batch (e.g. a stamping machine or drill slightly misaligned) then it is imperative to put a quality hold on all of the parts that were in that batch. If those parts make it onto a machine and out the door, the cost is exponentially higher due to the cost of returns, rework, and customer disappointment. The challenge is the huge size of the plant, with tens of thousands of look-alike parts. Whirlpool used to have 24 quality people running around the plant to find the lids that were part of the defective batch. Now with the press of a single button, they can put a plant-wide quality hold on that part or any assemblies that contain that part. The forklift drivers will instantly see their instructions change and be told to route the parts to a quarantine area.
One more point about these visual tags is they can be considered a green solution that saves trees and other resources. They reduce the use of paper, ink/toner cartridges, printers, maintenance of printers, and labor to replenish supplies. Savings from those reductions alone can create an ROI.
RTLS for Cattle Tracking
Zebra showed off their 1 millionth RTLS tag (this is the combined total of WhereNet and Dart UWB tags). One innovative example application was in livestock management, partnering with GEA. Taking advantage of the ±30 cm (~one foot) location accuracy of their UWB solution, they track all of the movements of each cow. By analyzing the movements, they can predict that a particular cow may be sick or in heat. The system learns over time. Following the behavior of a cow over a 6-10 day period allows the system to understand pattern changes in the cows. This enables them to quarantine and treat the cattle earlier, preventing further infections.
Returnable Transport Items
Confidex provides UHF labels and hard tags solutions for various industry applications in automotive, automatic vehicle identification, returnable transit item poolers, and manufacturing, as well as HF contactless tickets (ISO 14443), and NFC tags for industrial applications. Smart Ticketing, largely for public transit, is an important part of their business and they continue to have wins in that area. They have highly developed services and processes in RFID manufacturing, designing everything from scratch (antennas, inlays, materials, encapsulation, personalization) to control the performance of the tag, using chips from all of the major chip vendors. They also have customer applications in vehicle identification, RTIs (reusable transport items, such as pallets, crates, roll cages, gas cylinders). For example, Goodpack a Singapore-based pooler of RTI’s, using Confidex tags, tracks over two million pallet-sized intermediate bulk containers, which they rent to chemical, automotive, rubber and other industries. The tags have increased visibility and asset utilization. Various automotive customers use Confidex tags to track car prototypes in addition to managing RTI’s with Confidex tags. Confidex tags are also installed during final assembly on the finished car to track it out in the yard to ensure each one goes to the right destination.
Wood Pulp Bales
How about ‘item-level tagging’ for bales of wood pulp? That’s what Metsä Fibre, a Finnish pulp company, is doing with Confidex tags. These bales, which are about 3’ X 2’ X 2’ each, can be one of 20 different grades, many of which look similar. At each step of their journey, Metsä needs to ensure the right bales are going to the right location. Visual inspection was time-consuming and error-prone. Most of the passive RFID tags they tried could not be easily read through the pulp, with read ranges limited to less than two feet. But they found the Confidex tag could be read reliably at up to 15 feet. Metsä has improved shipping accuracy and efficiency substantially using these tags.
Carts for Plants
In 2011, Confidex provided tags for the largest RTI project in the world (at the time); 3.5 million tags for Container Centralen plant trolleys used to deliver flowers in Europe. The tags allow Container Centralen to securely authenticate the trolleys. Container Centralen’s customers are using tagged trolleys for more frequent and accurate inventory counting, too. Tagging such a large number of RTI’s in a short period of time required an easy tag attachment mechanism. Confidex tags are quickly attached without any tools or adhesive. Tags were provided with customer’s GRAI (GS1 Global Returnable Asset Identifier) codes and other personalized features.
In North America, active RFID technology from RF Code is being used to track plant trolleys from the growers through the retail chain into the garden departments of major U.S. home improvement stores (e.g., Home Depot and Lowes). Since the plant trolley owner only gets paid when they are used, carts that get misplaced or sit idle at grower locations or in the home centers are not generating revenue. In 2010, RF Code created a solar powered reader configuration that uses cellular communications to track carts stored in remote grower locations and distribution centers, without the need for manual scanning. This reader solution can be essentially just dropped off and mounted in the right position at each cart location, making for nearly instant installment and a very simple rollout, with no need to wire up any power or network connections. RF Code’s active tags are being used to track hundreds of thousands of plant trolleys in real-time across the U.S. every growing season.
Intermec showed off their latest handheld computer, the 70 series. Three out of four in the series support wireless LAN and let you replace the cellular radio and antenna with an RFID radio/antenna. Intermec told me demand is very high. The CN70 is small enough to fit into a smock pocket for use in healthcare. They said these devices provide 11 hours of battery life. Intermec is also doing a brisk business in electronic vehicle registration, particularly in Brazil which is moving towards having all new cars RFID tagged by 2015.
Based on what I saw at RFID LIVE, RFID is definitely alive and well, with lots of innovations, solid growth, and, after a long time, some optimism for many in the industry.