Flexibility: A Key to success in manufacturing

My ol’ ball coaches used to say: “be ready for anything”, “we have to make changes on the fly”, “we can’t be one dimensional”.  They all could have summed it by saying: “you gotta be flexible”. They all had it exactly right and that has proved to be true in all arenas of competition. In sports or manufacturing, the team that is capable of being flexible is the team that gets the win in the long haul.

The cost to get an idea to market is a key factor in determining whether or not an organization can make its foray into the future.  In the manufacturing world the product isn’t the idea, but a tangible good. The cost tied to a product begins to accumulate in the idea stage and continues all the way through to building the product and transporting it to market.  Even after the product has reached the market there are costs associated with sales, support, etc.  All too often manufacturers are handcuffed to running one product per line…Or should I say, doing that efficiently?  RFID has enabled manufacturers and specifically process engineers to perform changes and make alterations in midstream while saving on cost and improving quality. At the same time, the technology creates open lines of communication between operators and personnel on multiple shifts.

The term used in the industry is “Flexible Manufacturing”, which means multiple lines can create multiple products interchangeably and changes can be made to the process “on-the-fly”.  Work in Process (WIP) information is gathered, stored, and read using RFID to determine where the product has been, where it is now and where it is to go next in the process.  Essentially the process allows for better utilization of machines to maximize productivity of each unit.

This is a very simplified yet feasible example:

Assume all the work is to be done is in CNC machines or machining stations.  To begin with the RFID tag is loaded with a simple code that identifies each unique product to be machined.  Let’s say the code is a 4 digit number.  Of course the machine has to be capable of the build, but that is the given in this scenario. So the tag is then attached to the pallet or the raw product itself.  As it enters the first station the reader reads the code and sends it to the control on the machine, which was programmed ahead of time to interpret the code.  The code is used to initiate instructions stored in the machine controls. Code 0001 instructs the machine to use a certain tool and to operate on a given set of coordinates. The product is then machined. When the process is complete in that station, data is written to the tag to indicate it has been through station number one successfully or with error.  That product then moves to the next required station and a new product with a same, similar or completely different code enters the process.

That may appear to be an oversimplified example, but using RFID in the build process to improve or create flexibility is truly that simple. The process can be even more automated and more flexible through the use of RFID in other areas of this specific example. Changing tools in the machine, the movement of materials between stations and just the overall traceability of the products is enabled by RFID technology.

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