Traceability in Manufacturing – More than just RFID and Barcode

Traceability is a term that is commonly used in most plants today. Whether it is being used to describe tracking received and shipped goods, tracking valuable assets down to their exact location, or tracking an item through production as it is being built, traceability is usually associated with only two technologies — RFID and/or barcode. While these two technologies are critical in establishing a framework for traceability within the plant, there are other technologies that can help tell the rest of the story.

Utilizing vision along with a data collection technology adds another dimension to traceability by providing physical evidence in the form of an image. While vision cameras have been widely used in manufacturing for a long time, most cameras operate outside of the traceability system. The vision system and tracking system often operate independently. While they both end up sending data to the same place, that data must be transported and processed separately which causes a major increase in network traffic.

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Current vision technology allows images to be “stamped” with the information from the barcode or RFID tag. The image becomes redundant traceability by providing visual proof that everything happened correctly in the build process. In addition, instead of sending image files over the network they are sent through a separate channel to a server that contains all the process data from the tag and has the images associated with it. This frees up the production network and provides visual proof that the finished product is what we wanted it to be.

Used separately, the three technologies mentioned above provide actionable data which allows manufacturers to make important decisions.  Used together, they tell a complete story and provide visual evidence of every step along the way. This allows manufacturers to make more informed decisions based on the whole story not just part of it.

RFID: Using Actionable Data to Make Critical Decisions

While RFID technology has been in use since the 1950s, wide-spread implementation has come in waves over the years. Beginning with military applications where it was used to identify friend or foe aircraft, to inventory control in the retail industry, and now to the manufacturing space where it is being used to manage work in process, track assets, control inventory, and aid with automatic replenishment.

The bottom line is RFID is critical in the manufacturing process. Why? Because, fundamentally, it provides actionable data that is used to make critical decisions. If your organization has not yet subscribed to RFID technology then it is getting ready to. This doesn’t mean just in the shipping and receiving area.  Wide-spread adoption is happening on the production line, in the tool room, on dies, molds, machine tools, on AGV’s, on pallets, and so much more.

Not an RFID expert? It’s ok. Start with a quick overview.

Learn about the fundamentals of a passive RFID system here.

In the past, controls engineers, quality assurance managers, and maintenance supervisors were early adopters because RFID played a critical role in giving them the data they needed. Thanks to global manufacturing initiatives like Smart Factory, Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of things (IIOT) and a plethora of other manufacturing buzz words, CEOs, CFOs, and COOs are driving RFID concepts today. So, while the “hands-on” members of the plant started the revolution, the guys in the corner offices quickly recognized the power of RFID and accelerated the adoption of the technology.

While there is a frenzy in the market, it is important to keep a few things in mind when exploring how RFID can benefit your organization:

  • Choose your RFID partner based on their core competency in addressing manufacturing applications
  • Make sure they have decades of experience manufacturing and implementing RFID
  • Have them clearly explain their “chain of support” from local resources to experts at the HQ.
  • Find a partner who can clearly define the benefits of RFID in your specific process (ROI)
  • Partner with a company that innovates the way their customers automate

Five things to consider before selecting an RFID system

So, you have reached a point where you believe RFID is going to be the best solution. Now what? One of the most critical phases of a RFID project is deciding which product is going to address the application. While the planning stage can be highly conceptual, the hardware selection is truly a close-up inspection. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Here are the top five things, in no specific order, to consider after you have determined RFID is the appropriate technology for your application:

  1. Throughput

How much and how fast? How much data will be written to the tag and how much data will be read from the tag at each read point? Will the tag be moving during the read/write or will it stop in front of the antenna? Some RFID systems are capable of handling a large amount of data, while others are designed to read only small amounts of data. It is also important to consider if your data requirements will change in the near future.

  1. Read/Write Range

What is the required distance from the antenna to the tag? Will the tag be presented to the antenna at the same distance every time? Multiple frequency ranges can limit some systems to a few millimeters, while others are capable of communicating up to six or seven meters.

  1. Form factor

How much space do you have to mount both the reader and the tag? If space is limited, you can choose a system in which the antenna and the processor are combined in one housing. As for the tags, they can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as a license plate. The key is to make sure the equipment will not interfere with your process.

  1. Communication Protocol

How will the RFID processor “talk” to the control system? This is critical in a mixed control environment where multiple brands of PLCs or servers are present. What communication protocol do your controls engineers prefer — Ethernet/IP, Profinet, CC-Link, TCP/IP, etc?

  1. Environment

Where will the equipment actually be mounted? Does anything stand in the way of getting a clear read? Are there metal beams, tanks of liquid, or even operators walking in between the tag and antenna? This is probably the most critical of all the considerations because constant interference will block the antenna from reading or writing to the tag. While RFID technology has come a long way in recent years, metal and liquid can still affect the RF waves.

Keep these five things in mind and your RFID implementation will go a lot smoother!

To learn more about RFID solutions visit www.balluff.com.

What’s So Smart About a Smart Camera?

Smart “things” are coming into the consumer market daily. If one Googles “Smart – Anything” they are sure to come up with pages of unique products which promise to make life easier. No doubt, there was a marketing consortium somewhere that chose to use the word “smart” to describe a device which includes many and variable features. The smart camera is a great example of one such product where its name only leads to more confusion due to the relative and ambiguous term used to summarize a large list of features. A smart camera, used in many manufacturing processes and applications, is essentially a more intuitive, all-in-one, plug-and-play, mid-level technology camera.

OK, so maybe the marketing consortium is on to something. “Smart” does indicate a lot of features in a simple, single word, but it is important to determine if those smart features translate into benefits that help solve problems. If a smart camera is really smart it should include the following list of benefits:

  • Intuitive: To say it is easy to use just doesn’t cut it. To say it is easy for a vision engineer to use doesn’t mean that it is easy for an operator, a controls engineer, production engineer, etc. The camera should allow someone who has basic vision knowledge and minimal vision experience to select tools (logically named) and solve general applications without having to consult a manufacturer for a 2 day on-site visit for training and deployment.
  • All-In-One: The camera should house the whole package. This includes the software, manuals, network connections, etc. If the camera requires an external device like a laptop or an external switch to drive it, then it doesn’t qualify as smart.
  • Plug-and-play: Quick set up and deployment is the key. If the camera requires days of training and consultation just to get it up and running, then it’s not smart.
  • Relative technology: Smart cameras don’t necessarily need to have the highest end resolution, memory, or processing speed. These specs simply need to be robust enough to address the application. The best way to determine that is by conducting a feasibility study along with the manufacturer to make sure you are not paying for technology that won’t be needed or used.

Ultimately, a lot of things can be described as “smart”, but if you can make an effort to investigate what smart actually means, it’s a whole lot easier to eliminate the “gotchas” that tend to pop up at the most inopportune times.

Note: As with any vision application, the most important things to consider are lighting, lenses and fixtures. I have heard vision gurus say those three things are more critical than the camera itself.

Inspection, Detection and Documentation – The Trifecta of Work in Process

As the rolling hills of the Bluegrass state turn from frost covered gold of winter to sun splashed green of spring, most Kentuckians are gearing up for “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, otherwise known as The Kentucky Derby. While some fans are interested in the glitz and glamour of the event, the real supporters of the sport, the bettors, are seeking out a big payday. A specific type of wager called a Trifecta, a bet that requires picking the first three finishers in the correct order, traditionally yields thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in reward. This is no easy feat.  It is difficult to pick one horse, let alone three to finish at the top. So while the bettors are seeking out their big payday with a trifecta, the stakeholders in manufacturing organizations around the globe are utilizing the trifecta to ensure their customers are getting quality products. However, the trifecta of work in process is valued in millions of dollars.

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Work in process, or “WIP”, is an application within manufacturing where the product is tracked from the beginning of the process to the end. The overall goal of tracking the product from start to finish is, among other things, quality assurance. In turn, ensuring the product is of good quality creates loyal customers, prevents product recalls, and satisfies regulations. In a highly competitive manufacturing environment, not being able to ensure quality can be a death sentence for any organization. This is where the trifecta comes back into play. The three processes listed below, when used effectively together, ensure overall product quality and eliminate costly mistakes in manufacturing.

  1. Inspection – Typically executed withWorkinProcess Trifecta a vision system. Just like it sounds, the product is inspected for any irregularities or deviation from “perfect”.
  2. Detection – This is a result of the inspection. If an error is detected action must then be taken to correct it before it is sent to the next station or in some cases the product goes directly to scrap to prevent the investment of any additional resources.
  3. Documentation – Typically executed with RFID technology. The results of the inspection and detection process are written to the RFID tag. Accessing that data at a later time may be necessary to isolate specific component recalls or to prove regulatory compliance.

Whether playing the ponies or manufacturing the next best widget, the trifecta is a necessity in both industries. Utilizing a time tested system of vision and RFID technology has proven effective for quality assurance in manufacturing, but a reliable system for winning the trifecta in the derby is still a work in process.

To learn more about work in process, visit www.balluff.com.

Passive RFID Still the Way To Go For Work In Process (WIP)

With the rapid evolution of manufacturing technology it’s pretty tough to keep up with the latest and greatest products designed to help automate the manufacturing process. The big “buzz” surrounding RFID about a decade or so ago was Wal-Mart declaring that their top one hundred vendors would be required to tag every single item with an RFID tag. Well, that never came to fruition. Around the same time there was a lot of talk about active RFID systems as a new technology for work in process. Well, that didn’t ever quite materialize either.

While the active systems certainly have made an impact on yard and container management applications, passive RFID still rules the roost in WIP. In essence, the main difference between passive and active RFID is active tags require a battery which helps tagsto yield a much larger read range. One can imagine the benefits of an extremely long read range in a shipping yard, but on a production line the engineers are just fine with mounting the read head within a few inches of the work pieces. Eighty to ninety percent of the new WIP applications that we deal with still require High Frequency (HF) technology.   The other ten to twenty percent are using Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) which is still passive technology, just a longer read range. This is usually the case where the actual item being built is very large and it is very difficult to place a HF reader within inches of the work piece.

Ultimately, using active RFID for work in process is similar to using a sledge hammer to put a nail in a wall. It is simply overkill. So, while automation technology is on a course of change, it is clear that some of the “old faithful” equipment is still adequately addressing the needs on the production line.

To learn more about active vs. passive RFID tags, click here.

Who Has Access to Your Machine Controls?

If you can provide a list of people who have authorized access to your machine controls, then you are ahead of the game. If you can truly ensure that only the people on that list are accessing the machine and not sharing their credentials, then you are way ahead of the game.

Limiting access to the controls of a machine is certainly not a new concept. I see many organizations still using a mechanical key system for override or start up.  According to multiple controls engineers, the main issue with that is people share, copy, and misplace these keys on a regular basis. In this case, just about everyone on the plant floor would have access to the controls of any machine.

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Just about all of us carry a device that allows us to enter and exit our buildings. Whether it be a badge or a key fob, the technology is the same. RFID adds accountability to machine access control.  For example: Jane, the team lead, has full authority to make changes in the control system. The production line comes to a screeching halt and needs to be restarted. In order to restart the machine, Jane has to present her RFID badge to a reader near the controls and she is then given access to make some adjustments within the machine. When Jane authenticates into the machine, the date, time, and Jane’s ID can be recorded. This adds full accountability to the controls and deters Jane from giving John her badge to let him restart the machine.  If John makes unauthorized changes he makes them in Jane’s name.

Access control has become a popular solution in the last few years as machines have become more critical to operation.  Like most RFID applications there are multiple ways to address this.  The key is to select a vendor who has a core competency in the industrial space with knowledge of industrial control systems.

To learn more about how RFID technology controls machine access click here or visit www.balluff.com.

RFID in the Manufacturing Process: A Must-Have for Continuous Improvement

There is quite an abundance of continuous improvement methodologies implemented in manufacturing processes around the globe. Whether it’s Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, etc., there is one thing that all of these methodologies have in common, they all require actionable data in order to make an improvement.  So, the question becomes: How do I get my hands on actionable data?

All data begins its life as raw data, which has to be manipulated to produce actionable data. Fortunately, there are devices that help automate this process. Automatic data collection (ADC), which includes barcode and RFID technology, provides visibility into the process. RFID has evolved to become the more advanced method of data collection because it doesn’t require a centralized database to store the data like barcode technology. RFID stores the data directly on the product or pallet in the process, which allows for much more in-depth data collection.

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RFID’s greatest impact on the process tends to be improving overall quality and efficiency. For example, Company X is creating widgets and there are thirty-five work cells required to make a widget. Between every work cell there is a quality check with a vision system that looks for imperfections created in the prior station. When a quality issue is identified, it is automatically written to the tag.  In the following work cell the RFID tag is read as soon as it enters the station. This is where the raw data becomes actionable data. As soon as a quality issue has been identified, someone or something will need to take action. At this point the data becomes actionable because it has a detailed story to tell. While the error code written to the tag might just be a “10”, the real story is: Between cells five and six the system found a widget was non-conforming. The action that can be taken now is much more focused. The process at cell five can be studied and fixed immediately, opposed to waiting until an entire batch of widgets are manufactured with a quality issue.

Ultimately, flawless execution is what brings success to organizations.  However, in order to execute with efficiency and precision the company must first have access to not only data, but actionable data. Actionable data is derived from the raw data that RFID systems automatically collect.

Learn more about RFID technology at www.balluff.com.

 

The Benefits of using RFID or Barcode for E-Kanban or Automatic Replenishment

Electronic Kanban (E-Kanban) is a messaging system that uses a mix of technology to trigger the movement of components and materials within a manufacturing facility. Electronic Kanban differs from traditional Kanban in that it uses technology to replace traditional elements, such as Kanban cards with barcodes and RFID.

A typical electronic Kanban system will see inventory marked with barcodes or RFID. The inventory is scanned at various steps in the manufacturing process to signal usage levels that are sent back to an ERP system for replenishment. This method ensures a constant flow of material while keeping inventories to a minimum.

An additional benefit of E-Kanban is the integration of outside suppliers through an ERP system. By relaying this information, the entire supply chain can be optimized for Just-In-Time inventory flow.

Benefits include:

  1. Reduce inventory levels, carrying cost
  2. Savings in material transfer, labor cost
  3. Increase in inventory replenishment, decrease down time and line stoppage due to stock out

Automatic replenishment, Ekanban, and end-to-end pull, are all names that describe a system in which parts and sub-components are automatically replenished in a manufacturing environment. While most manufacturing organizations have some form of replenishment system in place, I have found that just about every company does it differently. While some are more effective than others, the ones that truly want to automate the process utilize automatic identification.

For more information, visit www.balluff.com.

For RFID Applications, Think Throughput

A common request from many engineers I talk to is the need for a “faster” RFID read/write system.  Usually, this is due to the fact they are increasing their overall line speed and decreasing the amount of time that a work in process item dwells in one station.  This is a good thing.  We all want to make more widgets faster. However, in addition to increasing the number of widgets that come off the production line and the rate at which they come off, the demand for quality has increased significantly. This is also a good thing. This certainly leads to a win-win between the manufacturer and the consumer. As the demand for quality increases so does the amount of data. Statistical process control, lineage data, build data, etc. are represented by large amounts of data. So the tag has to have enough memory and the reader has to have enough speed to keep up with the process. The amount of data transferred over a period of time is called throughput.

In RFID readers/writers, throughput is usually represented as bytes or kilobytes of data per second or milliseconds. The read/write speeds of all RFID systems are related to the amount of data being read or written to the tag. So, if high throughput is a requirement, a feature to look for in the reader/writer is the buffer size. I don’t want to get too deep into the technical weeds of data transfer, bit rates, baud rates, etc. so I will explain it from a marketing guy’s perspective. Think of an RFID system as a data delivery system. In this delivery system an imaginary tractor-trailer is what delivers the data from the reader to the tag and the tag to the reader. The trailer represents the aforementioned buffer.  The trailer or buffer can hold a specified amount of data, 32Bytes, 64Bytes and so on. This is determined by the manufacturer of the system. Semi trucks_blogTherefore, there may be two systems that operate at the same speed, but have a totally different throughput.  Back to the tractor-trailer example, there can be two semi’s going down the road at the same speed but one has a trailer that is half the size of the other and can only carry half as much product(data in this case). So in order to transfer the same amount of data, the half-size trailer has to make two trips (cycles) whereas the larger trailer makes only one. In a case where the amount of data that needs to be transferred is multiple thousands of bytes or kilobytes, that buffer size becomes more important because the more cycles or trips that have to be completed the slower the transfer.

Ultimately, speed is a relative term in the world of moving data from one point to another. In order to future-proof your production line, look a little deeper into the features of the system to make sure you’re investing in technology that is not only fast, but fast and moves a lot of data.

For more information, visit www.balluff.com.