The “smart factory” is creating a lot of conversation within the industry these days, especially around what technologies can be used to streamline the flow of materials during the manufacturing process. While many are still becoming aware of all the possible tech tools available, most are in agreement regarding the key objective — create greater operational efficiency.
In other words, how manufacturers can eliminate bottlenecks, address inefficiencies and put processes in place that maximize resources to ultimately improve time to market, customer satisfaction and profitability.
There are a number of technologies available that can help manufacturers reach these goals, including RFID, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), WiFi, ultra-wideband (UWB) and more. The specific manufacturing environment and usage scenario will ultimately determine what works best, whether it is a single technology solution or a combination.
For this article, we will focus on the rise of radio-frequency identification (RFID) solutions and the top five ways manufacturers can leverage the technology to enhance production efficiency within their facilities.
No. 1 - Real-time visibility of asset movement
Over the past decade, there have been multiple advancements in RFID technology and real-time location-based services (RTLS), especially in the area of RFID readers. Today there are multiple options available, including manual handheld readers and fixed, hands-free readers. Handheld or portable readers allow mobile workers to scan tags manually as they move through a facility. These readers can be effective for smaller coverage areas, but only provide a brief snapshot with limited data capture. Fixed, hands-free readers are capable of continuously capturing RFID tag data from a long distance in wide, high-ceiling areas, capturing all inventory data in real time.
By scanning RAIN RFID tags with hands-free readers, facilities can continuously monitor the product and parts inventories, tools, raw materials, machinery, people and more. This new level of asset movement visibility allows facilities to monitor a number of support functions simultaneously, including identifying routine maintenance of machinery; tracking materials throughout the lifecycle of a process; evaluating the productivity of indirect resources, such as workers on the shop floor; and tooling for equipment set-up and change overs.
The ability to see everything as it happens enables management to make decisions that are more proactive rather than reactive, impacting overall planning optimization of a facility as well as creating an opportunity to make changes that will improve the efficiency of resources.
For instance, data may indicate that an area on the plant floor has a number of workers with prolonged waiting or standing periods, or doing other work that is negatively impacting a process. Based on this information, management now has an opportunity to reallocate its workforce immediately, not only improving the efficiency of that process or zone, but other areas of operation as well. Better efficiency across a manufacturer’s operations leads to better productivity, bringing products to market faster which in turn will have a positive impact on the bottom line.
No. 2 - Increased Inventory Accuracy
Manufacturers who have implemented RFID technology report item-location accuracy of 95% or higher. Continuous item-level asset tracking gives manufacturers the ability to know the exact location of tools, parts, raw materials, transport vehicles and more. Also, because it’s automated, human error no longer comes into play. Knowing with certainty what is in stock, in repair, or out on the floor means that assets can be utilized more effectively, restocked less, and located faster. It allows for a more efficient supply chain that will impact a number of areas, including production and throughput.
No. 3 - Increased Throughput
Without efficient throughput, production processes can become highly ineffective, slowing time-to-market and negatively impacting bottom lines. Most firms have a number of technologies to help monitor production line flow and scheduled maintenance, but RFID can help supplement those technologies on the supply chain side by allowing manufacturers to also monitor raw materials and parts from work order to final assembly. This enables them to identify shortages and delays that would possibly take hours or sometimes days to recognize without real-time visibility, which could slowing production.
Through the integration of manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, there is a large amount of continuous data available regarding the status of production orders. RFID enhances visibility as these orders are processed through warehouses, manufacturing, and distribution centers to enhance on-time delivery to customers as well as process flow to established standards. Bottelnecks are immediately visible enhancing rapid response and corrective action implementation. Ideally, a preventive operating state is desirable to minimize waste and optimize asset utilization. RFID acts as a key enabler here.
No. 4 - Real time vs. Historical Data Comparisons
Real-time data tracked overtime can be extremely powerful. A lot of decisions can be made on the fly when looking at data in real time, but when compared to historical data, decision makers may uncover information or opportunities they may have never considered before.
Since RFID allows you to collect data points at integrals as frequently as each second, not only can a tag’s current location be tracked, but also where it has been. Capturing and tracking this data can be a powerful tool for demonstrating the effectiveness of lean initiatives. Tools such as spaghetti diagrams, which are visual representations of a continuous flow line that traces the path of an item or activity through a process, can be automated and created on demand using data to track material movements over time. As you make changes to operations and production flows, manufacturers can track the before and after to see the real improvements in flow and identify tangible benefits. They can then fine tune this as needed and see the results with minimal efforts.
No. 5 - Improve Compliance
Most facilities have systems in place to track for compliance that monitor what needs to be done or when items need to be accounted for, but many actually lack the ability to direct people to the precise location of items. This can lead to scenarios where items are known to be missing, but no direction as to where they are in the facility. Or perhaps you know a tool is due for calibration or maintenance, but again, no direction on where it is. If a calibrated tool happens to be overdue, where has the tool been used while expired? Oftentimes, manufacturers don't realize problems until it is too late. Shutting down an operation to investigate and solve the problem should not be acceptable. RFID can help identify these compliance issues and their consequences can be mitigated or eliminated altogether before they impact production processes.
For instance, tagging tools and materials with RFID tags can help track when a tool leaves a designated area or enters a restricted area. This data can be used to take immediate action to correct the situation before it becomes a safety issue. This can even be applied to tracking maintenance schedules, which can negatively impact compliance if not monitored or updated on a regular basis.
Another example may be when an employee isn’t authorized to use a specific tool or piece of equipment. Today’s RFID systems can actually be used to identify the situation using real-time messaging technology. Powered industrial vehicles (PIV) equipment is an area where many companies have safety policies that require specific training for each type of equipment. Associations between tags on equipment and individuals could identify when someone who has not been trained is using PIV equipment. An alert can then be sent out in the form of a real-time message to notify management or disable the equipment.
The specific use case or situation will always determine how a RFID solution will impact a manufacturer’s operations. The more product and people movement taking place within a facility, the more benefits a RFID solution can provide. At the end of the of the day, the goal is to create more operational efficiency which in turn should lead to greater gains in terms of productivity, product output and profitability.
Steve Hudson is president of View Technologies.