Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) RFID is quickly becoming the go-to identification system for flexible manufacturing lines around the world. While it was once considered to be a system designed primarily for distribution centers and retail stores, UHF technology has evolved to meet the rigors of the manufacturing environment.
Not long ago I was in a discussion with one of my customers who had been using RFID for almost 25 years. He was caught in a tough spot because he had an application which required reading tags from as little as six inches away to as far as two feet away. The HF system he had could easily meet his needs for the six inch read range, but reading at two feet away limited him to using UHF. When I explained that, his bewildered look indicated to me he was reluctant to consider UHF as a real option. He went on to explain that about ten years prior he conducted tests in his plant with UHF and found a host of limitations with the technology. His main concern was how the operators’ two-way radios interfered with the UHF operating frequency of 902-928MHz. Having heard this from other manufacturing organizations who were early adopters I knew right away that he wasn’t aware of how the technology has evolved over the last decade.
Frequency hopping has pretty much eliminated interference with other radio signals. In addition to overcoming radio interference, being able to read and write to tags which are mounted on or near metal and liquids has become a reality with recent advancements. These improvements have led to more flexible read ranges which are a requirement in today’s flexible manufacturing applications.
In a nutshell, the demands of flexible manufacturing have spurred advancements in the process as well as the supporting technology. As it applies to identification of parts or pallets in the manufacturing process, the flexibility of UHF RFID enables manufacturers to gain visibility in their process and provides actionable data that is used to make complex business decisions.
All too often I read about RFID replacing barcode as an ID technology. No doubt, there are cases where RFID is used to replace a barcode system due to a harsh environment or there is a need to “de-centralize” information etc., but more often than not I see both barcode and RFID being used together to address an application. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
One application where the two live in harmony is sequencing. Sequencing is referred to by many different names and acronyms and is synonymous with automotive assembly plants and their tier suppliers. In a nutshell, the goal is to deliver the exact number of components in the exact order they will be used. When this is done efficiently the result is a WIN-WIN-WIN. A win for the supplier because they decrease the amount of in-process inventory and carrying costs; A win for the manufacturer because they maximize their floor space and spend less time hunting parts and components to complete a build; And a win for the consumer because they get their new car faster.
As one can imagine there is a great deal of communication and data sharing that must take place in order for this to operate smoothly. This is where the one-two punch of RFID and barcode come into play. The most common method is to identify the parts with barcodes and write the barcode data to the RFID tag which is fixed to the carrier. The information on the RFID tag identifies the carrier and identifies the components on the carrier. Rather than explain how this works, it makes more sense to look at a real-life example of how a major automotive supplier achieved their sequencing goals by using the one-two punch. Read Balluff’s Application Spotlight on UHF RFID Sequencing to learn more.
With the recent boom in RFID implementations by organizations all over the globe, there is a buzz in the on-line communities and social networking sites about how the technology is an attempt to invade the privacy of every “Jane and Joe” on the planet. I have to admit when I first started to come across these public concerns I just assumed this was the vocal minority being overly paranoid. However, as the technology has progressed into many different areas of our life it has become pretty clear that little has been done to address the concerns of the public. So, I am going to address a few of those concerns here.
Recently, the GM plant in Tonawanda, NY incorporated RFID into their engine production process. They simply attach a Balluff Databolt (a specialized bolt with an RFID tag embedded in it) to every engine before it goes onto the assembly line. As with many manufacturing processes the engine will go to many different stations to be assembled and tested. At each of these stations data from the previous station is read and new data is written to the tag to ensure everything in the process went as planned. When the engine is completed the information written on the tag is uploaded to GM’s database and stored. In addition, the tag is removed, its memory erased and placed on another engine that goes through the same process. The tag DOES NOT stay with the engine. And, even if it did there would be no way to secretly track your vehicle by “pinging” this tag.
The GM example is just one of tens of thousands of applications where RFID is used to ensure quality, manage the production process, and manage product recalls in the manufacturing world. So, what about other applications like in retail where clothing is tracked via RFID or the livestock or pet industry where a small RFID tag is implanted in the animal?
I have to be honest. It didn’t take much to lure me to Orlando following the Arctic winter which haunted pretty much everybody who lives north of Dallas. And, just as I had hoped, the sunshine was in full force and the bonus was Balluff being at center stage thanks to the Databolt and its recent success at GM.
If you missed this year’s edition of RFID Journal Live then you missed an opportunity to hear first-hand about the famous Databolt. Mark Chiappetta, The manufacturing Engineering Superintendent at GM in Tonawanda, explained to conference attendees how technology has improved overall efficiency in the manufacturing process at the plant. Of course, the Databolt was featured in his presentation which was followed by a wave of interest in the Balluff booth. Read the GM Databolt story: http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?11329
Now that I have offended every cat lover on earth, just relax. I can assure you there were no animals harmed in the 2013 edition of the RFID Journal Live show in Orlando. I ‘m just borrowing a phrase from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and countless other literary compositions. “There is more than one way to skin a cat” is the idiom I haven’t been able to shake from my thoughts since leaving the show.
If you missed us, we were the guys displaying the industrial gateway/portal equipped with the ultra-rugged antennas and the 4 channel UHF controller that seemed fit to take on heavy artillery fire. In addition, you missed the flashing smartlight that indicated the presence and identified tagged items as they passed through the RFID portal, which was all powered by Transitionworks Software.
My first “cat skinning” moment came long before the start of the show. We have several elite middleware and application software partners in our RFID arsenal, but my challenge was to choose the best fit for the show demo. I had two basic criteria for selecting a partner: 1. …software partner must have extensive experience installing and deploying full traceability solutions in the industrial arena and is capable of producing an “off the shelf solution” as well as a highly customized, application specific solution. 2. …must be so user-friendly that even a marketing guy (me) can operate it. Transitionworks Software based in High Point, NC was the perfect fit. While performing my due diligence it became apparent that there are dozens if not hundreds of software providers who can design traceability applications. AND, they all have a different way of going about it (they all have a different way of “skinning a cat”…to keep with the theme). Transitionworks understands that conforming the technology around the customer’s process proves successful over time, opposed to interfering with the customer’s process in order to utilize RFID technology. I like the way they skin cats!
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” -W.B. Yeats
At some point in everyone’s life, they find themself at a proverbial crossroads. They are forced to make a choice that will impact the future. These decisions could create personal fulfillment, affect the people around them, and influence their role in an organization. OK, maybe that’s a little strong for the blogosphere, but what I am trying to say is there is a crossroads where one must differentiate the benefits of a product when the companies that sell them all claim their product is the best and will definitely meet or exceed the needs of their customers.
These days, decision makers not only put their job on the line, but also the future of their company when they pull the trigger on buying new equipment. And, let’s face it, those wacky marketing people (I can say that because I am one) haven’t made it any easier to discern one product from another. Let’s use a UHF RFID system, for example. One could pull spec sheets on 10 different controllers and conclude that “they’re all the same”. I have heard that exact phrase spoken multiple times from customers who were considering the purchase of a system. However, we all know that is very far from the truth.
As marketing folk, we have a great challenge in front of us in that we must try to make our product appeal to the whole market in which we are selling. Most of us fell into a monkey-see monkey-do mentality and our spec sheets are filled with speeds and feeds so we can compete with the next guy’s product. So, how is it possible that our customers can make an educated decision when everything appears the same? We listened to the market, and we wised up. Instead of just speeds and feeds we added words to help better describe our product. We added words like: “rugged”, “flexible”, “industrial strength”, “turn-key”, .etc. Now most spec sheets and product descriptions include speeds, feeds, AND fancy buzz words.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Nine pounds of stuff in a one pound bag?”, or otherwise known as the “Blivet Effect?”
I’ve recently experience this, actually four incidences in three different companies to be exact. It revolves the wrong shut height. When the recipe in a press doesn’t match die dimensions, or when the die dimensions are estimated, some bad things can happen.
In all of these companies, stamping presses of various tonnage ratings were run with a die that was over shut height dimension (the first hit caused a kaboom!). Dies were locked up so badly, that they had to be torched, cut, and/or mechanically coaxed out. In all cases, it took several days for this process to take place, causing lost production and significant down time (not to mention the financial loss and aggravation for a multitude of employees).
With the proliferation of UHF (ultra-high frequency) based RFID in the commercial and consumer markets, UHF has been seen as the mainstay now for many low-cost, long-range RFID applications. And in recent years with the desire for longer range application flexibility in the industrial sector, naturally users want to gravitate toward technologies and products with a proven track record. But can you really take the same products developed and used for the commercial and consumer logistics markets and apply them reliably to industrial applications like asset tracking, EKanban, general manufacturing or logistics? Continue reading “UHF RFID, One Size Fits All! – Really?”