Can automotive manufacturers leverage real-time location systems and RFID applications?

Posted on 27 Jan 2023 by The Manufacturer

When it comes to implementing new operational technology and information technology systems, I know the automotive industry has been a bit more conservative despite the complexity of processes required to meet customer demands.

Any change can have end-to-end effects, and it may require involvement from partners both upstream and downstream – at least to be fully effective. But it’s time for the entire automotive ecosystem to look at what can be done to improve track and trace capabilities of parts, vehicles, reusable totes and even tools.

In Zebra’s latest Automotive Ecosystem Vision Study, 80% of consumers and fleet managers said they want end-to-end visibility into what’s happening during the manufacturing process. They also want more convenient vehicle service experiences. At the same time, three-quarters of automotive industry decision-makers say they urgently need to gain more end-to-end supply chain visibility. Well, the reality is that such desires will only be met if real-time data about parts or vehicles is being collected and the various systems collecting, analysing and actioning the data are connected.

Plus, if you (as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), retailer, transporter or dealer) don’t know the current location of every part, tool, and piece of reusable transport packaging, it’s hard to keep production and order fulfilment operations on schedule. And if you lose sight of completed vehicles, on-time delivery issues become the least of your worries. That’s why vehicle tracking technology isn’t just a last-mile investment anymore. Nor is it something that can be exclusively managed using barcode technology. The monitoring and reporting of assets and actions must be automated, and it must occur in real time given the increasing volume and diversity of automotive manufacturing, shipping, sales, and maintenance operations.

Why RFID and real-time location systems?

Now, you might be saying, “My barcode-based track and trace systems can do this.” And you wouldn’t be wrong. However, radio frequency identification (RFID) and real-time location systems (RTLS) are quickly becoming the gold standard as the automotive ecosystem becomes more digitised and calls for greater transparency by consumers, dealers, fleet managers and even supply chain partners increase.

With a barcode, you can only confirm where a part or finished vehicle was located at the time of scan – assuming you know where the scanner was located at the time of the scan. But with real-time location technology, you can confirm goods receipt in real time and leverage a more dynamic put away model in parts logistics. Or, at the dealership level, you can use RFID to expedite maintenance and repair actions by expediting data collection and records updates via tag reads on tires, parts and even entire vehicles.

In fact, one of our customers cut the total time each car is in the dealership for maintenance by half after they started using an RTLS system to locate customer cars in the lot and identify any needed actions based on service bulletins and maintenance history. They don’t have to spend minutes hunting for the vehicle or digging through different systems and records to understand the vehicle’s history.

The maintenance process is also fully transparent for the customer, as they can see when the car has been pulled back, which action is being taken right now, and when they should return to the dealership for pickup – all from a mobile app being fed real-time updates from the RTLS. So, leveraging RTLS simultaneously has improved the customer experience – and customer satisfaction levels – and made the entire maintenance process more efficient, enabling the dealership to service more vehicles each day.

This is an especially timely improvement considering that some surveys are telling us about delays to customer vehicle repairs. With vehicles becoming more complex machines and supply chain issues continuing to challenge parts availability, it’s important to simplify operations and maintain full visibility into – and control over – on-hand inventory. You can’t afford for anything to go missing or take a minute longer than necessary to fix.

More than inventory tracking is needed

Some may think inventory management is the primary value proposition for RTLS. However, this technology is becoming table stakes for quality control, supplier accountability, and even customer service.

In automotive, the use cases are obvious, starting from parts inventory management to just in time component deliveries to the production line and then the management of complete vehicle inventories. But these are just three out of many, many other use cases we’re seeing in the automotive ecosystem as well as in other industries.

Beyond inventory management, though, there are many places RFID and RTLS could be implemented to drive operational improvements.

Let’s start at the point of production, especially facilities with flexible manufacturing lines which send cars to manufacturing cells for specific parts mounting. This is a completely different way of building cars than the traditional fixed production lines.

So, manufacturers absolutely need to know not just where the car is but also where every asset is located, down to the screws and screwdrivers. It’s the only way to ensure everything is in the right place at the right time. And, of course, RTLS is key to enabling this type of manufacturing model.

Of course, we know from talking with tier one and tier two suppliers when OEMs are imposing RFID tagging requirements on them. In the past, this requirement was mainly intended to help the OEMs start tracking goods upon arrival at their facilities. The purpose and value of RFID tagging has now changed, though.

First of all, OEMs want to better know where goods are in the manufacturing process of their tier one suppliers – they want visibility into inbound inventory before it arrives. Additionally, we see tier one suppliers starting to use the RFID-captured data more for their own process optimisations, which includes quality control and of course helps improve their ability to meet customer expectations.

You can learn more about Zebra’s automotive manufacturing solutions here, and contact Stephan directly for a discussion.

Stephan Pottel: EMEA Practice Lead, Manufacturing , Transportation & Logistics | Zebra EMEA

Stephan Pottel has 20+ years of industry experience in bringing new technologies to early adopter customers across the Transport, Logistics and Manufacturing verticals. He has been with Zebra since 2017 as part of the EMEA Strategy and Business Development team and is looking after trends and key market drivers in the Automotive industry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Applied Computer Science from the University of Applied Sciences Niederrhein in Germany.