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RFID Enables Omniscient View Of Whirlpool's Parts

While RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology has long ago entered into the consumer space — everything from smartphones to pets are loaded with data-laden tags — it’s had a more rocky experience in the industrial space. The technology, which aims to wirelessly transfer data via minuscule tags embedded in or on various products, didn’t quite stack up against the industrial environment.

While RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology has long ago entered into the consumer space — everything from smartphones to pets are loaded with data-laden tags — it’s had a more rocky experience in the industrial space.  The technology, which aims to wirelessly transfer data via minuscule tags embedded in or on various products, didn’t quite stack up against the industrial environment.  Either it was too expensive, not suitable for harsh environments, or didn’t broadcast its signal far enough to be of use. While many looked into or tested the technology, RFID never received the reception it has from consumer-driven space.

And Ed Nabrotzky, the Executive Vice President of Product Development at Omni-ID, has heard all the excuses.  He says, “You wouldn’t believe how many customers I’ve met with who had a failed experience with their first try at RFID, and now they take another look at it, and it works in a way they never thought it would have worked before. It’s come a long way.”

One of those companies was Whirlpool Corporation, and, in particular, its Clyde, Ohio manufacturing facility, which is 2.4 million square feet — the largest washing machine plant in the world.  Bradford St. Louis, the company’s senior materials engineer, needed a better method of tracking the movement of parts down the washing machine paint line.  He says that in the old system, workers used paper tags to identify each rack containing parts that had been painted so that a forklift driver would then be able to identify the parts.  But tags tended to fall off, or be mis-read, which meant parts were delivered to the wrong locations.  In addition, the desire to keep an up-to-date tally of parts meant three daily audits at a great time cost.

Nabrotzky adds, “These labels gave all the description, but, of course, once they printed it, they had no more visibility into it. They didn’t know where it was going.”

Add to that a major ramp-up in demand at the Clyde-based plant, and St. Louis was actively searching for better ways to ensure assets were accounted for and traceable as they moved through the plant.  An early plan involved using printed bar codes, although that would have cost 4.5 cents per label.  With the need for hundreds of labels daily, the costs of such a solution were unmanageable.  But St. Louis and his team thought RFID might be able to offer the same benefits while being essentially free to operate, despite some of the concerns with the technology that he was already familiar with.

Omni-ID’s solutions were promising, as were their promises for the efficacy of new tags and receivers, with better ranges and more durability, which meant they could be placed on racks and not fretted over.  In addition, the company offered their ProVIEW system, which uses electronically re-writable surface tags to display crucial information about a rack at-a-glance or display errors when parts are being moved to the wrong place.

In Whirlpool’s case, Omni-ID then took over and developed, tested and validated a system that could be immediately rolled out on the Clyde plant floor.  That included all the software and hardware needed to make the system work.  St. Louis says the hardest part of the implementation was running Ethernet cable around the plant to accommodate all the receiver stations, but acknowledged that’s a given process in just about any new plant floor technology advancement today.

Omni-ID ended up selecting its Max tags, printed with Impinj R420 readers, all linked together with Laird Technologies 4x4 antennas.  Readers were installed in the ceiling, with antennas located closer to where the forklifts would be shuttling racks.  With the ProVIEW tag in place, drivers can get an immediate read of what load they’re working with.  If they take it to the wrong location, the system immediately sends an alert to the driver. With that immediate visual cue, which doesn’t require supervisor intervention, the employee can immediately fix the problem.

Nabrotzky says, “If the quality department finds a problem and wants to put it on quarantine and quality hold, they press one button, and instead of 12 people running around with red paper tickets, everything gets quarantined immediately.  The visual screen the forklift driver would see when he goes to pick up the rack gets a big line in the middle and a message that says, ‘Quality hold. Take over to QA for inspection.’”

St. Louis says the company has achieved an ROI on the system based the cost of printing paper tags alone.  For any company still using paper-based asset tracking, a short ROI is well within their means.  And because Whirlpool also opted to skip the printed barcode solution, Whirlpool is able to re-use tags ad infinitum by simply re-writing the data onboard and displaying new information on the ProVIEW readers.

In addition, St. Louis says that one of the biggest assets, while not exactly tied to a financial return, is the improved ability to audit when necessary, and the decreased need to audit altogether.  Before, they would audit part counts on a near-constant basis, as management has long wanted a live, accurate count of everything in the paint line.  Now, that count is updated automatically as the RFID tags on racks are read during movement through the line — all without human intervention.

St. Louis adds: “The ProVIEW system allows us to view accurate, real-time WIP inventory — allowing for leaner management of assembly and delivery operations.  We always know where our parts and containers are without having to send someone out to look for them!”

If something goes wrong, the company is also in a better position to understand where and why.  Nabrotzky says that in many cases outside of Whirlpool, he’s seen companies lose a rack of parts, or put it in the wrong place.  Trying to find the “odd man out” can be difficult when racks might be stacked up to the ceiling.  But the ProVIEW tags can be easily revered in color — white on black rather than the standard black on white — or flashed, so that they can be picked out of the others.

Clearly, RFID has worked out for Whirlpool, despite many of the concerns that St. Louis, and many others in manufacturing, have of its efficacy.  St. Louis says the company is looking at more ways RFID could be used around the plant, and the company, and he’s offering other plants insights into the “best practices” of this particular roll-out.

Nabrotzky himself is very bullish on the technology’s future in manufacturing.  He says, “RFID has been performing better than it ever has.  We have better read ranges, and we can handle harsher environments than ever before. From a higher level, industry is working on lot of anti-counterfeiting and anti-theft work.  Tamper-proof or tamper-evident equipment.”

Tags are getting smaller and smaller every year, which means they can go on more objects and parts, or even embedded inside them, safe from industrial harm.  Nabrotzky says they’re showing up in the military, where durability is critical.  With the “internet of things” percolating its way into many manufacturing spaces, both Nabrotzky and St. Louis seem confident that manufacturers will find more innovative ways to make use of their inherent benefits, while the makers of tags, receivers and antennas will continue to push their ranges and durability to new limits.