Lost and found – RFID takes next step

Avoiding the loss of shipping containers worth millions of pounds is one application for RFID technology. But the latest iteration of real-time asset location devices can locate high value goods to within one metre, and companies like big auto OEMs can find this level of tracking accuracy highly valuable in and between plants, Will Stirling discovers.

A few years ago an automotive manufacturer, who shall remain anonymous, ran a returnable shipping container management pilot. Information technology giant IBM was given some numbers to analyse. The company had spent $400m in containers, and about 10% of these were going missing each year. That’s $40m in lost capital per year, on assets the size of a house going off-piste. IBM’s business analytics calculated that, by managing the pool of containers more efficiently, the auto maker could reduce its pool by 30%, a saving of over $100 million, plus up to $40 million per year on the reduced container losses.

For such OEMs containers in these volumes can be perceived as commodity items, until one adds up the losses. The solution recommended was real-time asset tracking – using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track the items’ global position.

Real-time asset location (RTAL) is a fairly mature technology, and it has been well embedded in the automotive sector for about more than 10 years. It can have far less mundane applications that tracking containers. Manufacturers of high value items like cars, aircraft assemblies and white goods use RFID to track real-time movement of goods around the plant. This might not have an obvious benefit for a factory that focuses on a handfull of product variants that take a very predictable route around the factory during assembly.

But where those products have a very high degree of customisation, and paths of product flow are not fully predictable, real-time asset management and real time locating solutions (RTLS) can make a hue difference as the path of items retailing at £70,000 deviates around the plant.

Jaguar Land Rover, who on Friday announced its expansion plans would create 1,000 jobs, implemented its first RTAM based on RFID configuration about 15 years ago. This year, the carmaker is planning to roll out phase 3 of its RTAM infrastructure at its Castle Bromwich plant, which used the latest iteration of WherePorts and Tags from Zebra Technologies, a leading player in the field.

At Zebra Technologies industry conference at the Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire on November 2, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), Ford, Broekman Logistics and West Cheshire College explained how they are using this equipment to minimise losses and engineer a more visible, less wasteful supply chain.

How important is it to track individual vehicles on a production line like JLR’s Evoque operation?

“We have hundreds of thousands of potential specifications of vehicles,” said JLR’s spokesman at the event. “Customers specify to the nth degree what goes in to their vehicle. The routing in an off-track operation will be different [to a standardised car]. f you’ve ordered the body kits, you want the body kits fitted – if you haven’t, you don’t want to route the vehicle there.

“[RTLS] allows us to mine that variant data, make sure that the right vehicles are going to the right place, and see where are the processes that make any mistakes – find them and improve those processes and remove waste from the operation.”

Car plants are huge places where even a Range Rover Evoque can go missing. “Because each vehicle has a unique spec for the customer who has ordered that vehicle, losing that vehicle is not like losing a tin of baked beans – you cannot just replace it with another one off the shelf,” says JLR. “It will potentially have to be built again.”

Part of the upgraded RFID system includes Zebra’s WhereLan III. Up until now, most real-time tracking systems based on RFID technology could locate a tagged item to within 3-4 metres of its location. Zebra claims that WhereLAN III is the first locator to track within one metre. The benefit? Imagine a factory parking lot for new models of cars with thousands of specifications, where a single order needs to be located and withdrawn or returned to the factory before shipping. Also, Zebra says, industrial users can pinpoint the location of specific racks and containers at all times, minimising inventory on the factory floor. And  WhereLAN III’s extended range of operation provides coverage in large, high-clearance areas such as hangars in aerospace applications.

This technology is also applicable to people. Rather than a sense of Big Brother is watching you, where time attendance monitoring is the main driver, people monitoring can help to visualise the efficacy of key personnel movement within an organisation. For example, West Cheshire College has installed a Zebra RTLS (real-time location solution) to measure the time individual lecturers spend with students, as a proportion of the total time spent in the college building. This has augmented the college’s efficiency audit and the numbers are submitted to its grant benefactors, such as the regional leg of the Department for Education and Universities.

“Increasingly, businesses are demanding an effective solution that enables complete visibility of their assets to optimise flow throughout their operations and supply chains,” says Stephen Logue, Zebra vice president of sales & services, Location Solutions. “The latest hardware and software real time location solutions [can now] track, manage, and maximise the utilisation of high-value assets, equipment, and people.”

Also at the Gaydon event, Alfons Thijs, senior material handling and packaging engineer at Ford in Genk, Belgium, spoke about the scrap tracking management and asset tracking systems that Ford has installed at the huge Genk plant and in Frankfurt. The two sites operate a ‘closed loop’ environment, where goods pass between each site at different stages of assembly.

This process used to be track product flowing from Genk to Frankfurt but goods there were not tracked on the return leg, if they had to come back to Genk for final assembly. The latest level of asset tracking used by Ford, again using Zebra’s technology, means both goods and storage systems can be tracked between both sites at all levels of assembly. This has saved Ford Genk tens of thousands of euros in recovered stacking units, that previously went walkabout ‘somewhere’ between the two sites, and key suppliers.

Look out for further updates on real-time asset tracking using RFID technology in The Manufacturer.