RFID Improves Processes and Profitability

Tags provide more data without requiring line-of-sight monitoring.

Product identification has evolved rapidly over the last decade as advanced techniques let companies get more data using systems that are easier to install. Radio Frequency Identification is seeing a rapid takeoff, employing readers that can monitor products that aren’t directly in their line of sight.

RFID provides a number of benefits that can make it more viable than bar codes and other printed technologies. It eliminates the line of sight viewing that’s needed for printed labels, giving installers more freedom when they’re setting up systems.

{mosimage}RFID tags can hold more information, and they can also store small amounts of data that can be helpful as products move through the pipeline from production to end consumer. RFID readers that gather data don’t care whether parts are covered with grease or grime, and the problem of not being able to read a bent bar code also disappears.

This wireless technology really stepped into the spotlight a few years ago when Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense both said their leading suppliers would have to provide RFID tracking. Complying with their requirements is pretty straightforward: suppliers must attach RFID labels before products were loaded onto trucks headed to Wal-Mart or DoD facilities.

But companies that attach radio transmitters before that point can reap more benefits if they attach RFID tags earlier in the manufacturing process. “We see a tremendous amount of value when customers go beyond compliance," says Rick Raber, chief technology officer at Northern Apex of Fort Wayne, Ind. “In all industries, there’s great value in getting RFID tags into the process as early as possible.”

Instead of attaching labels after manufacturing when boxes are headed to shipping docks, companies can deploy RFID tags during the manufacturing process. Putting tags on products as soon as they’re packaged, or even before, lets industrial managers track them as they move through factories and warehouses.

{mosimage}For example, tagged products can be monitored when they’re put on pallets. When they move from one facility to another, the ability to spot products that aren’t in a reader’s line of sight gives managers more insight. They can see how long pallets sit once they’re loaded, and whether they are moved to unwanted locations, for example.

Though tracking is the most obvious way to use RFID tags, they can also improve efficiency by automating machine setup. If components are tagged early in the production cycle, readers on production equipment can adjust parameters for the next part in the queue.

“When the tag is embedded on the item, you can change an item's properties or make a different cut during computer numerical controlled (CNC) processes. Then tags can be updated to show that the step has been completed," says Raber, who serves as a subject matter expert on RFID curriculum development for CompTIA, a trade association for the information technology industry. He’s also testified before Congress on RFID’s benefits in areas such as reducing counterfeiting in pharmaceuticals.

That eliminates a too-common problem, that personnel don’t know whether items sitting on a pallet have gone through all the necessary steps. Memory on the RFID tags can be updated even if it’s difficult to get a line of sight reading that would be required with conventional tracking techniques like bar codes. That’s especially important in processes like painting and finishing, where bar codes could be obscured.

The ability to store and update data on RFID tags gives them far greater capabilities than 2D printed tags. For example, automakers may want to store test information at the end of each production cycle. When the manufacturing process is complete, the tags can be erased, and data such as the shipping date can be entered. That gives dealership maintenance technicians information that can be helpful for warranty.

The tags can also be linked to databases that house information on an array of parts. When operators constantly see parts with slightly different shapes and sizes, machines can automatically present a visual image of the part that’s in front of them. Operators can then see whether the action and measurements they’ve set are the right ones for that specific component.

RFID tags can also be used to ensure product authenticity. That’s increasingly important as counterfeiters grow bolder and more sophisticated. In fields where counterfeiting is an issue, tags can be embedded in areas where they are difficult or impossible to remove, ensuring buyers that they’re getting genuine pharmaceuticals, electronic components or other products.

There are myriad applications for RFID tags and there are many application requirements in disparate fields. Various needs can be met by deploying different types of tags which engineers have found ways to fit into their applications. When readers need to scan items on a pallet that’s six feet away or further, UHF tags provide the necessary range. When it’s important to gather data on a number of items stacked on a shelf, HF near field devices and readers with shorter distances are the technology of choice. These components can provide singulation, letting readers look at serial numbers to focus on a specific tag. Singulated techniques are widely used in applications like pharmaceuticals where items are often close together.

There are many benefits to be gained when RFID systems are used. Whether it’s for tracking, machine setup or preventing fraud, the technology can save companies money and make production lines and distribution channels more efficient.

For information on Siemens RFID systems, please click here.


More in Control