Collaboration Key to Successful RFID Deployment

Bringing together hardware, software, and subject-matter expertise allows these two companies to win big in the manufacturing vertical.

When it comes to building and deploying enterprise-grade data collection solutions, oftentimes it requires the participation of more than one company. A good example of this can be seen with a cooperative effort between integrator AbeTech and software company Stratum Global. The two companies collaborated to create a custom solution for a large 85,000-employee manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

AbeTech had been working on and off with the customer for about seven years, providing various inventory hardware and software solutions. Eventually, the small inventory projects led to a much larger opportunity that came to light about three years ago.

The manufacturer had one department where painting took place, which fed an assembly line," explains Bill Schmidt, account executive for AbeTech. "With multiple shifts running, if parts out of the paint area weren't where they needed to be at a certain time, the other departments couldn't operate." In some instances, the plant would have to expedite things by sending in personnel to walk through the paint department in search of the needed part. This is very manually intensive and slowed down the entire manufacturing process. The manufacturer needed greater visibility into where parts were in the process. More specifically, the manufacturer's key objective was to gain access to accurate and reliable "ATP" (available-to- promise) timelines for its assembly line. Using Stratum Global's TagNet software for RFID, event management, and inventory, along with RFID tags and readers, AbeTech and Stratum Global collaborated to put together a solution that would address this need and more.

The companies deployed 30 Zebra FX9500 fixed RFID readers at various read points (workstations) in the facility. Zebra AM610 slim line antennas were used as well. Each part entering the manufacturing process has a magnetic ceramic-encased tag placed on it, able to withstand extreme temperatures experienced throughout the various steps of production.

"Every time the tag passes through a workstation, the system captures a 'read' event of the tag's unique ID, which is assigned to a given part number in the ERP (enterprise resource planning) system," explains Alan Christensen, CTO at Stratum Global. "This essentially tells the
ERP, in real-time, where tags [parts] are located. Information on the part and its usage can be pulled onto workstation displays where workers can access it to aid in their tasks."

While the plant was already beta-testing using the ceramic tags within its facility, AbeTech and Stratum did further testing before using them in their new enterprise-grade solution. "We had to do additional temperature testing to ensure the tags would work for what we had planned," says Christensen. "We also had to adjust some of our read points to give the tags a little more time to cool down after leaving an oven."

Additionally, there was a lot of testing of the location and position of the tags on the various parts being tagged. "We had to do a lot of antenna tuning to get read rates near 100 percent," says Schmidt. "Anyone with RFID experience knows how metal and liquid can affect performance. At this site, we had to deal with both."

As this was one of the first RFID implementations for the manufacturer, there was also a lot of training involved. "We had all sorts of training and education to do," says Schmidt. "We had management-level training for how RFID works all the way down to the shop floor for how to use the system."

Due to the scope of the project, planning, and a significant ERP implementation that took precedence, the project sat in early stages for about a year before the two companies could get moving at full speed. "They had a lot going on at once, so we had to do our best to be reactive to their needs," says Schmidt. "They recognized the value of the technology. The delay was just due to internal barriers outside of our control." Once the implementation was under way, it took just a few months to complete.

In the end, the manufacturer has a solution that gives management the ability to see where parts are in real time. Now that the solution is in place, there are also secondary benefits the technology can provide. "Knowing where parts are, they can use data mining to identify bottlenecks to improve their processes," says Christensen. "For instance, they can seek to understand why some shifts are faster or slower than others."

To date, the project is close to completion at this first site, with another two sites remaining. The total cost of the solution thus far is approaching $500,000. "Beyond these two sites, our expectation is that this solution will find other uses within their business, and we'll be collaborating for a long time," concludes Schmidt.