By Patrick J. Sweeney II
The problem: A manufacturer of tractors and heavy equipment has several manufacturing facilities around the United States, specializing in different aspects of production. Parts made in one plant are typically shipped to another plant for final assembly. This work in process (WIP) system counts on re-usable plastic totes to hold the engine parts in-transit. The million dollar problem this manufacturer needed to solve was the case of the missing totes. The supply chain manager was asking himself: “Why do I have to buy so many more each year? Where are all my containers? Am I losing WIP inventory or just containers? Are the missing containers directly causing shipping and production delays?”
The proposed solution: The company had been investigating RFID for several years but is not under any mandate from supply chain partners—yet. But, as a supplier to large retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, the company’s execs knew it was only a matter of time. Their objective was to determine whether RFID technology today is accurate, scalable and can be deployed in a timely manner. With two production facilities geographically dispersed they knew this would not be some sterile test-lab environment, and that they had to get it right the first time. The totes traveled between North Dakota, where they were packed with dense metal engine components, to Iowa for final assembly into an engine. After Iowa, the totes traveled to a third-party facility to be cleaned and repaired if necessary before returning to North Dakota. The company also knew it needed someone who could partner with its supply chain team to deliver the complete solution in an accelerated timeframe.
Creating an Integrated Team
The challenge with RFID is confusion and the lack of experience in the marketplace. And this particular manufacturer doesn’t just throw technology projects over the wall to a third party. It looks for vendors who can be long term partners, as well as being industry leaders and trustworthy organizations. After reading my book RFID for Dummies, the company’s leaders decided to include ODIN technologies in the RFP process. Once they spoke with reference clients and met with us, they knew we would work collaboratively with them as the system was designed, deployed and integrated. We also agreed to a timeline that everyone else in the industry probably would have considered ludicrous.
The two facilities were over 450 miles apart. The RFID solution needed to be designed, facilities and products tested, work-flows documented, a reader network architecture created and then everything deployed—in less than a month. This would be a first in the industry. The manufacturer’s team knew enough about RFID to have some opinions, but they wanted to make sure there was scientific testing around the tag selection, the reader configuration, and the middleware integration. They did not want this to be a trial and error effort—this project would have to be executed with military precision to get it right the first time.
The Four P’s of Success
Planning The ODIN technologies team got together with the manufacturer’s team and mapped out the work-flow and business processes that the RFID solution would need to support. Then they created the timeline and incorporated critical constraints such as lead time on tags and readers, portal rack shipment times, etc. The key lesson of the planning session was that its success came from a team approach. The lead RFID architect assembled a team which included representatives from IT, facilities, supply chain, production and unions. Input from everyone who will be touched by RFID is the right way to kick off a successful project.
Physics Next, the company shipped a pallet of the totes and engine parts to the ODIN technologies lab in Dulles, Va., for RF Signature Analysis, tag selection, and placement optimization. The ODIN team used a scientific method—not trial and error—and employed test equipment such as spectrum analyzers, signal generators, power meters all in a live environment. The system would need to work in the real world, not a sanitary lab environment, so there was no anechoic chamber or clean rooms to give artificial results. Scientific testing based in the real world is critical to success.
Pilot After the physics testing, site assessment and workflow design, the team had a scientific foundation for choosing the bill of materials and designing the RFID network architecture that would meet the manufacturer’s needs. Now the fun part could begin, deploying the portals, programming the hand-helds, loading the printers and integrating the middleware. The key was testing each individual piece, and then testing them all connected together. Oftentimes middleware will overwrite the configuration on a reader or there will be miscommunication between software, readers, PLCs and other equipment, so this is a critical step.
Production After the complete system was piloted it was certified for performance by containing read zones so that one reader was not reading an adjacent interrogation zone, the directional sensors were telling the software if a forklift was coming or going, and the data was getting pushed out in a useful format. The key part to any production system is knowing what data will be used and how. Too many Wal-Mart suppliers neglect this when they deploy a system and then end up having to pay an outrageous amount each month for someone who doesn’t know their RFID network to analyze their data.
The system was up, running and integrated at two facilities in 23 days—a new RFID record by any standards. There were another few days of tweaking the software, but the teams made their tight deadline with room to spare. With this vendor-client partnership and collaboration, the manufacturer’s IT and e-commerce teams had a successful deployment of what many people had thought was an immature technology. The moral of the story: With the right team, proper planning and scientific testing, RFID can be a fertile technology for any industry, not just the retail world.
Patrick J. Sweeney II is president and CEO of ODIN technologies, and author of RFID for Dummies.