RFID Replaces Bar Codes Efficient Asset Tracking

Bar code technology has been around for many years and is a tried and true means for tracking asset and product movement, but it has its limitations. For example, a bar code reader must have an unobstructed view of the bar code to effectively scan. And the bar code label cannot be damaged, or it is then unreadable by the scanner.

In more recent years, additional RFID technologies have been more readily available for use to accomplish the same task but with fewer limitations. Using RFD, a scanner may be able to read tags that are blocked by other things and not visible to the naked eye. UHF RFID can scan multiple tags at the same time in a single scan, whereas most bar codes need to be scanned individually. This, therefore, increases efficiency and reduces the time required to perform the scans.

Then, of course, there is the human factor. RFID can help eliminate mistakes caused by human error. Most bar code scanning is done with hand scanners held by workers since the scanner has to be in the exact position to see the bar code to get a good scan. While manual/hand-held scanning can be done using RFID, most times a fixed scanner can be used as long as the position of the RFID tag can be guaranteed within certain tolerances. These tolerances are much greater than with a bar code scanner.

With the advent of inexpensive consumable RFID labels, the ease and cost of transitioning to RFID technology has become more feasible for manufacturers and end users. These labels can be purchased for pennies each in rolls of several thousand at a time.

It should be noted that several companies now produce printers that can actually code the information on a RFID label tag while also printing data, including bar codes, on these label tags so you have the best of both worlds. Tags can be scanned automatically and data that can be read by the human eye as well as a bar code scanner.

Some companies have expressed concern about the usage of RFID in different countries due to local regulations regarding the frequencies of radio waves causing interferences.

This is not an issue for HF  and UHF technology. HF is an ISO standard (ISO 15693) technology so it applies to most everywhere. For UHF, which is more likely to be used due to the ability to scan at a distance and scan multiple tags at the same time, the only caveat is that different areas of the world allow scanners to only operate in certain frequencies. This is overcome by the fact that almost all UHF tags that I have encountered are what are called global tags.

This means these tags can be used in any of the global frequency ranges of UHF signals. For example, in the North America, the FCC restricts the frequency range for UHF RFID scanners to 902-928 MHz, whereas MIC in Japan restricts them to 952-954 MHz, ETSI EN 300-220 in Europe restricts them to 865-868 MHz, and DOT in India restricts them to 865-867 MHz. These global tags can be used in any of these ranges as they work from 860 to 960 MHz.

On the subject of UHF, it should be mentioned that in addition to the frequency ranges restricted by various part of the world, maximum antenna power is also locally restricted.

For more information on RFID for asset tracking, visit https://www.balluff.com/local/us/products/product-overview/rfid/


Turning Big Data into Actionable Data

While RFID technology has been available for almost seventy years, the last decade has seen widespread acceptance, specifically in automated manufacturing. Deployed for common applications like automatic data transfer in machining operations, quality control in production, logistics traceability and inventory control, RFID has played a major role in the evolution of data collection and handling. With this evolution has come massive amounts of data that can ultimately hold the key to process improvement, quality assurance and regulatory compliance. However, the challenge many organizations face today is how to turn all that data into actionable data.

Prominent industry buzzwords like Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) once seemed like distant concepts conjured up by a marketing team far away from the actual plant floor, but those buzzwords are the result of manufacturing organizations around the globe identifying the need for better visibility into their operations. Automation hardware and the infrastructure that supports it has advanced rapidly due to this request, but software that turns raw data into actionable data is still very much in demand. This software needs to provide interactive feedback in the form of reporting, dashboards, and real time indicators.

The response to the demand will bring vendors from other industries and start-ups, while a handful of familiar players in automation will step up to the challenge. Competition keeps us all on our toes, but the key to filling the software gap in the plant is partnering with a vendor who understands the needs on the plant floor. So, how do you separate the pretenders from the contenders? I compiled a check list to help.

Does the prospective vendor have:

  • A firm understanding that down time and scrap need to be reduced or eliminated?
  • A core competency in automation for the plant floor?
  • Smart hardware devices like RFID and condition monitoring sensors?
  • A system solution that can collect, analyze, and transport data from the device to the cloud?
  • A user-friendly interface that allows interaction with mobile devices like tablets and phones?
  • The capability to provide customized reports to meet the needs of your organization?
  • A great industry reputation for quality and dependability?
  • A chain of support for pre-sales, installation, and post-sales support?
  • Examples of successful system deployments?
  • The willingness to develop or modify current devices to address your specific needs?

If you can check the box for all of these, it is a safe bet you are in good hands. Otherwise, you’re rolling the dice.

Which RFID Technology is Best for Your Traceability Application?

There are a lot of articles on using RFID for traceability, but it’s hard to know where to begin. Examples of traceability include locating an important asset like a specific mold that is required to run a machine or verifying a specific bin of material required to run production. Spending time looking for these important assets leads to lost time and production delays. RFID can help but understanding the different RFID capabilities will narrow down the type of RFID that is required.

Not all RFID technology is the same. Each RFID technology operates differently and is categorized by the frequency band of the radio spectrum, such as low frequency, high frequency and ultra-high frequency. In low and high frequency RFID, the read range between RFID tag and reader antenna is measured in millimeters and inches. The read range on ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID technology can range from one meter to 100 meters. Typically, inventory traceability is done using ultra-high frequency band of the radio frequency spectrum, due to the need to read the asset at a further distance so it does not interfere with the production flow. Also, there are cases where there needs to be a reading of multiple tags in an area at the same time to determine where an asset is located. UHF RFID technology allows for simultaneous reading of multiple RFID tags from a single antenna reader.

There are two types of UHF RFID, passive and active.  Passive UHF RFID means that the RFID tags themselves have no additional power source. The UHF reader antenna sends out an electromagnetic wave field, and the RFID tags within the electromagnetic field have an internal antenna that receives the energy which activates the integrated circuit inside the tag to reflect the signals back to start communicating. The read distance between the passive RFID tag and antenna reader is determined by several factors, such as the size of the electromagnetic wave field generated out of the reader antenna and the size of the receiver antenna on the RFID tag. Typical read ranges on passive UHF systems can be anywhere from one to 12 meters, where the larger the power and RFID tag, the longer the range.

Active UHF RFID systems do not require the tag to reflect signals back to communicate because the active RFID tag has its own transmitter and internal battery source. Because of this, with active UFH RFID you can get read ranges of up to 100 meters. There are active tags which wake up and communicate when they receive a radio signal from a reader antenna, while others are beacons which emit a signal at a pre-set interval. Beacon active tags can locate in real time the location of the asset that the RFID tag is attached to. However, a downfall to active RFID tags is the battery life on the tag. If the battery is dead, then the asset will no longer be visible.

Figure 1

Once the strengths and weaknesses of each type of UHF RFID system is known, it’s easier to work with the constraints of the system. For example, the application in Figure 1 shows a reader antenna for reading bins of material placed a few feet away so that its’ not in the way of production. A passive UHF RFID system will work in this case, due to the distance between the antenna and the RFID tag on the bin a few feet away. There is no need to worry about battery life on the passive RFID tag.

Figure 2

If the exact location of a production mold is required in a large facility, then using an active UHF RFID system is likely a better fit. Incorporating an active RFID tag that sends out a beacon at a fixed interval to a data center ensures the location of all assets are always known. With this setup, the exact location of the mold can be found at any time in the facility.

Examining the different types of RFID technology can help determine the correct one to use in a traceability application. This includes analyzing the pros and cons of each technology and seeing which one is the best fit for the application.

The Right Mix of Products for Recipe-Driven Machine Change Over

The filling of medical vials requires flexible automation equipment that can adapt to different vial sizes, colors and capping types. People are often deployed to make those equipment changes, which is also known as a recipe change. But by nature, people are inconsistent, and that inconsistency will cause errors and delay during change over.

Here’s a simple recipe to deliver consistency through operator-guided/verified recipe change. The following ingredients provide a solid recipe-driven change over:

Incoming Components: Barcode

Fixed mount and hand-held barcode scanners at the point-of-loading ensure correct parts are loaded.

Change Parts: RFID

Any machine part that must be replaced during a changeover can have a simple RFID tag installed. A read head reads the tag in ensure it’s the correct part.

Feed Systems: Position Measurement

Some feed systems require only millimeters of adjustment. Position sensor ensure the feed system is set to the correct recipe and is ready to run.

Conveyors Size Change: Rotary Position Indicator

Guide rails and larger sections are adjusted with the use of hand cranks. Digital position indicators show the intended position based on the recipes. The operators adjust to the desired position and then acknowledgment is sent to the control system.

Vial Detection: Array Sensor

Sensor arrays can capture more information, even with the vial variations. In addition to vial presence detection, the size of the vial and stopper/cap is verified as well. No physical changes are required. The recipe will dictate the sensor values required for the vial type.

Final Inspection: Vision

For label placement and defect detection, vision is the go-to product. The recipe will call up the label parameters to be verified.

Traceability: Vision

Often used in conjunction with final inspection, traceability requires capturing the barcode data from the final vials. There are often multiple 1D and 2D barcodes that must be read. A powerful vision system with a larger field of view is ideal for the changing recipes.

All of these ingredients are best when tied together with IO-Link. This ensures easy implantation with class-leading products. With all these ingredients, it has never been easier to implement operator-guided/verified size change.

RFID Gaining Traction in Tire Manufacturing

RFID is one of the hottest trending technologies in the tire industry. It has the potential to increase efficiency in tire production and logistics processes and gather large amounts of data for IIoT.

This technology will:

  • Reveal transparency deep in the processes
  • Minimize the number of rejected tires
  • Improve production processes for fewer failures
  • Increase control of materials
  • Improve the overall quality of individual tires

The challenge of using RFID in the tire industry is dealing with the harsh environments of some of the production areas in automotive plants. But the benefits of RFID to the tire industry are becoming more and more a reality. Suppliers of RFID are talking to tire manufacturing engineers, automation teams, material handling teams and R&D development engineers to develop better tools. For now, here are some examples of where RFID can be implemented in the tire creation process to improve efficiency, quality and cost.

In the mixing process, RFID “labels” are applied to all the chemicals and rubber compounds to assure the mixing of the right recipe of materials. RFID readers can be mounted on TBMs (Tire Build Machines), which are located before the curing press process, to assure the right material reels, parts and tools are in place before the expensive tire build process occurs.

There is also a growing need for RFID in the curing and mold processes. It important to manage the molds and the parts of the mold, like the bead rings, mold containers and mold segments. These are very expensive and there are hundreds in the average plant. Tags need to be able to sustain temperatures above 300 °F continuously for 8 hour shifts with little to no cooling down time.

RFID is an excellent tool to monitor material flow throughout the whole manufacturing process. RFID can be added to a trolly, AGV, conveyors and hook-chain conveyors.

While RFID is already being implemented by some tire manufacturers, there is much room for much growth in this conservative industry. As more manufacturers lean into IIoT and the need for data, RFID will surely be used more and more often.

The tire industry is excited to roll in RFID technology and pumped up to implement it where it makes the most sense and ROI dollars.

For more information about the tire industry, visit https://www.balluff.com/local/us/industries-and-solutions/industry/mobility/tire-industry/

How RFID Can Error-Proof Appliance Assembly

Today, appliance manufactures are using RFID more frequently for error proofing applications and quality control processes.

Whether the appliance assembly process is automatic or semiautomatic, error-proofing processes using RFID are as important as the overall assembly processes. Now, RFID systems can be used to tell a PLC how well things are moving, and if the products and parts are within spec. This information is provided as an integral part of each step in the manufacturing process.

RFID systems installed throughout the manufacturing process provide a way of tracking not only what has happened, but what has gone right. RFID records where something has gone wrong, and what needs to be done to correct the problem.

Appliance manufacturers often need to assemble different product versions on the same production line. The important features of each part must be identified, tracked and communicated to the control system. This is most effectively done with an RFID system that stores build data on a small RFID tag attached to a build pallet. Before assembly begins, the RFID tag is loaded with the information that will instruct all downstream processes the correct parts that need to be installed.

Each part that goes into the appliance also has a RFID tag attached to it. As the build pallet moves down the assembly conveyor to each station, the tag on the build pallet is read to determine what assembly and error proofing steps are required. Often, this is displayed on an HMI for the operator. If the assembly requires testing, the results of those tests can be loaded into the data carrier for subsequent archiving. The operator scans the tag on each part as it is being installed. That data is then written to the tag on the build pallet. For example, in the washing machine assembly process, the washing machine body sits on the build pallet, and as it moves from station to station, the operators install different components like electronic boards, wiring harnesses, and motors. As each one of these components is installed, its RFID tag is scanned to make sure it is the correct part. If they install the wrong part, the HMI will signal the error.

RFID technology can also be used to reduce errors in the rework process. RFID tags, located on either on the assembly or the pallet, store information on what has been done to the appliance and what needs to be done. When an unacceptable subassembly reaches the rework area, the RFID tag provides details for the operator on what needs to be corrected. At the same time, the tag can signal a controller to configure sensors and tools, such as torque wrenches, to perform the corrective operations.

These are just a few examples of how appliance manufactures are using RFID for error proofing.

For more information, visit https://www.balluff.com/local/us/products/product-overview/rfid/.

Injection Molding: Ignore the Mold, Pay the Price

Are you using a contract molding company to make your parts? Or are you doing it in house, but with little true oversight and management reporting on your molds? As a manufacturer, you can spend as much on a mold as you might for an economy, luxury or even a high-performance car. The disappointing difference is that YOU get to drive the car, while your molder or mold shop gets to drive your mold. How do you know if your mold is being taken care of as a true tooling investment and not being used as though it were disposable, or like the car analogy, like the Dukes of Hazzard used the General Lee?

What steps can you take in regard to using and maintaining a mold in production that can help guarantee your company’s ROI? How can you ensure your mold is going to produce the needed parts and provide or exceed the longevity required?

It is important for any manufacturer to understand the need for the cleaning and repair required for proper tool maintenance. The condition of your injection mold affects the quality of the plastic components produced. To keep a mold in the best working order, maintenance is critical not only when issues arise, but also routinely over time.

In the case of injection molds specifically, there are certain checks and procedures that should be performed regularly. An example being that mold cavities and gating should be routinely inspected for wear or damage. This is as important as keeping the injection system inspected and lubricated, and ensuring all surfaces are cleaned and sprayed with a rust preventative.

Figure 1 An example of the mold usage process.

The unfortunate reality is that some molders wait until part quality problems arise or the tool becomes damaged to do maintenance. One of the biggest challenges with injection molders is being certain that your molds are being run according to the maintenance requirements. Running a mold too long and waiting until problems arise to perform routine maintenance or refurbish a mold can result in added expense, supply/stock issues, longer time to market and even loss of the mold. However, when molders have a clear indication of maintenance and production timing, and follow the maintenance procedures in place, production times and overall costs can decrease.

Figure 2 Balluff add-on Mold ID monitoring and traceability system.

Creating visibility and accuracy into this maintenance timing is something today’s automation technology can now address. With todays modern, industrial automation technology, visibility and traceability can be added to any mold machine, regardless of machine age, manufacturer and manufacturing environment.

With the modern networked IIoT (industrial internet of things)-based monitoring and traceability system solutions available today, the mold can be monitored on the machine in real-time and every shot is recorded and kept on the mold itself using, for example, an assortment of industrial RFID tag options mounted directly on the mold. Mold shot count information can be tracked and kept on the mold and can be reported to operations or management using IIoT-based software running at the molder or even remotely using the internet at your own facility, giving complete visibility and insight into the mold’s status.

Figure 3 Balluff IIoT-based Connected Mold ID reporting and monitoring software screens.

Traceability systems record not only the shot count but can provide warning and alarm shot count statuses locally using visual indicators, such as a stack light, as the mold nears its maintenance time. Even the mold’s identification information and dynamic maintenance date (adjusted continuously based on current shot count) are recorded on the RFID tag for absolute tracability and can be reported in near real-time to the IIoT-based software package.

Advanced automation technology can bring new and needed insights into your mold shop or your molder’s treatment of your molds. It adds a whole new level of reliability and visibility into the molding process. And you can use this technology to improve production up-time and maximize your mold investments.

For more information, visit https://www.balluff.com/en/de/industries-and-solutions/solutions-and-technologies/mold-id/connected-mold-id/

Custom Sensors: Let Your Specs Drive the Design

Customized sensors, embedded vision and RFID systems are often requirements for Life Science devices to meet the needs for special detection functions, size constraints and environmental conditions. Customization can dramatically raise costs and you don’t want to pay for stock features, such as an external housings and universal outputs, that are simply not needed. So, it comes down to your specification driving the design. A qualified sensor supplier can create custom orders, allowing your specifications to drive the design, building just what you need and nothing you don’t.

It’s as easy as putting a model together.

The process is fairly straight forward. After reviewing your specifications, the sensor supplier develops a plan to supply a functional prototype for your testing phase. Qualified sensing companies can quickly build prototypes either by starting with a standard product or using standard modules. Both methods have advantages.

Standard Product approach: This is the fastest method to get a prototype up and running. Here, the focus is on providing a solution for the basic sensing/detection application. Once testing confirms the functionally, a custom project is started. The custom project ensures seamless integration into your device. Also, cost control measures can be addressed.

Standard Module approach: This will handle the most demanding applications. When a standard product is not able to meet the basic required functionally, we turn to the base component modules. An ever-growing field of applications are solved by combining options from the hundreds of available modules. While this takes more time, the sensing company can deliver a near final prototype in much less time than if they were creating an internal development.

Qualified sensor companies can easily handle the production side as well. With significant investments in specialized automated manufacturing equipment, production can be scaled to meet varying demands. And as components go obsolete, sustaining engineering projects are routinely handled to maintain availability. This can be disruptive for internal production or contract manufacturers. Sensor companies will take on the responsibility of life-cycle management for years to come. It’s part of their business model.

So, make sure your sensor, embedded vision or RFID supplier has a large model kit to pull from. Your projects will exceed your specification and be completed on time without long-term life-cycle issues.

For more information , visit https://www.balluff.com/en/de/service/services/productbased-service/.


Using Long-Range RFID for Metal Stamping Die Identification

Using incorrect dies for metal stamping operations can result in lost time and production as well as severe damage to the presses and a risk to human lives.

In recent years, there was a case where the use of the incorrect die caused catastrophic press damage resulting in significant downtime and, because the press was so large, it had to be cut up before it could be removed and replaced. These types of occurrences can prove disastrous to the survival of a company.

When not in use, dies are generally stored in specified storage areas. Often, the die is in the wrong place, and the crane operator needs to know what he/she is retrieving for the next process in the correct die.

To help ensure that these types of errors do not occur, some manufacturers use long-range UHF RFID technology. This can ensure that the correct dies are chosen when they are staged outside of a press. And with handheld devices, it can help the operator find the correct die in storage if it has been misplaced.

Since long-range UHF RFID technology allows the verification of the correct dies from as little as one foot away to as far as several meters, it can be used in both large and small stamping presses. The long-range allows the reader antennas to be placed in strategic locations where the correct readings will be possible but in positions where they will not be damaged by the operation of the press and dies.

I recently assisted with a metal stamping operation that first brought this idea to my attention. This manufacturer was having the problem of the wrong dies being staged for installation into the press. So far, none of the dies had made it past the staging area and into the press. Still, the possibility of that happening was clearly present, and they were experiencing lost production due to having to remove the incorrect die and find the correct one.

The manufacturer wanted to interlock the press so that if the incorrect dies were not in place, the machine would not be able to run. He also wanted to know ahead of time of a wrong die so that it could be replaced promptly to not impact production.

The solution we developed was to place multiple reader antennas at multiple staging locations at the press and interlock the RFID reads with the PLC that controlled the press.

Additionally, he incorporated handheld readers to help find misplaced dies in the storage area.

This solution required testing and tuning of the UHF RFID system to ensure that all die RFID tags were being read when the dies were staged. But once this was completed, it proved to work effectively and reduce the errors and downtime.

It should be noted that due to the physics of UHF RFID technology versus other types of RFID technology, implementing long-range UHF RFID systems in any application should be preceded by a feasibility study that tests the system in the real world environment of the plant.

Be Driven by Data and Decrease Downtime

Being “driven by data” is simply the act of making decisions based on real data instead of guessing or basing them on theoretical outcomes. Why one should do that, especially in manufacturing operations, is obvious. How it is done is not always so clear.

Here is how you can use a sensor, indicator light, and RFID to provide feedback that drives overall quality and efficiency.


Machine Condition Monitoring

You’ve heard the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, broken machines cause downtime. What if there was a way to know when a machine is getting ready to fail, and you could fix it before it caused downtime? You can do that now!

The two main types of data measured in manufacturing applications are temperature and vibration. A sudden or gradual increase in either of these is typically an indicator that something is going wrong. Just having access to that data won’t stop the machine from failing, though. Combined with an indicator light and RFID, the sensor can provide real-time feedback to the operator, and the event can be documented on the RFID tag. The machine can then be adjusted or repaired during a planned maintenance period.

Managing Quality – A machine on its way to failure can produce parts that don’t meet quality standards. Fixing the problem before it affects production prevents scrap and rework and ensures the customer is getting a product with the quality they expect.

Managing Efficiency– Unplanned downtime costs thousands of dollars per minute in some industries. The time and resources required to deal with a failed machine far exceed the cost of the entire system designed to produce an early warning, provide indication, and document the event.

Quality and efficiency are the difference makers in manufacturing. That is, whoever makes the highest quality products most efficiently usually has the most profitable and sustainable business. Again, why is obvious, but how is the challenge. Hopefully, you can use the above data to make higher quality products more efficiently.


More to come! Here are the data-driven topics I will cover in my next blogs:

  • Part inspection and data collection for work in process
  • Using data to manage molds, dies, and machine tools