24 Jun Upgrading your business with RFID
Waukesha, Wis. – Versatility was the word of the day last Thursday at the Wisconsin RFID Conference as a panel of business representatives from across Wisconsin told the tales of their experiences with RFID in upgrading their business. With a broad spectrum of industries represented, ranging from prescription drugs to laundry services, attendees got a glimpse of how radio frequency identification technology could be tailored to fit their own business.
“The bottom line is that companies need to be prepared for the adoption of this technology,” said Paul Schmidt, senior manager at Accenture. “The important thing is to make sure you know it doesn’t stand alone.”
Andy Bennett of HK Systems/Irista began the series of presentations by illustrating how the company helped Harley-Davidson improve efficiency and eliminate errors by implementing automated tracking on the assembly line. The program, called the AVIS system, implants a tag in each product that identifies the component at various parts of the assembly chain and tells the operator exactly what to do. The data is then shifted from station to station, and determines whether or not the component is fit to pass to the next stage.
A particular breakthrough HK/Irista had while working on the program was realizing that since each one of the RFID tags had its own unique identification number, they could simply associate tags with certain models. Thus, only passive tags were required to write data directly to the serial number, dramatically cutting down on the additional information written on the chip.
The end results of the program were exceptional, with at least 90 percent of assembly-related errors eliminated. The results were so successful, in fact, that the system has been rolled out at both of Harley-Davidson’s Wisconsin plants, as well as the facilities in Kansas City and York.
“RFID is rock-solid, and for the right application it works great,” Bennett said of the program’s success. “The key to using RFID is not turning it into a system and expecting it to work … you have to understand the system and create data flow.”
While the next presentation, by Tom Abbett of Tagsys, was certainly a different application – the textile business – RFID proved to create a data flow just as effectively as it did with motorcycles. For their client company Grantex, a major rental garment firm that handles over 10,000 units of clothing a day, Tagsys saw the need for automation and installed an RFID chip in each piece of clothing.
These chips now allow for instantaneous garment scanning, which sorts the clothes by status and condition and points to where they should be sent. Additionally, scanning confirms and validates necessary repairs to each damaged garment, with all data on the status of each item stored and processed through the mainframe.
This automation has now driven cost errors from 2 percent down to 0.1 percent, and in the five years since its implementation, two million garments have passed through with no problem whatsoever. Benefits to the system include a 100 percent increase in repair rate, a 50 percent reduction in labor and 300 percent increase in processing speed.
Abbett also pointed out that the improved efficiency has boosted the work environment, causing 20 percent growth for the company and increased interest among potential employees.
“The quality of people has driven up so that everyone wants to work there, because of the culture and facility,” Abbett said.
Schmidt then took the podium again, telling the story of how Accenture took on the responsibility of creating an RFID pilot project for the pharmaceutical industry. There was a considerable amount of problems to be addressed, including counterfeit drugs, out-of-stock and expired products and issues with recalled material. Regulations already exist to combat such problems, but these systems are usually paper-based and inefficient.
While getting on track to fulfill a 2007 deadline for system upgrades, Accenture has instituted a short-run trial system in which a limited amount of product – enough to fill four stores for three months – is tagged and kept separate, and then put through standard circulation. This creates a safe and secure chain, as the RFID scanners monitor every step of the process. False entries that enter the circulation are immediately recorded and taken into the mainframe to be fully inspected.
Additionally, this system allows for more accurate shipping because product codes are stored in a database and shipment locations can be discovered with little effort. While the RFID-based system has been very limited in its scope so far, studies have proven the platforms to initiate such architecture do exist and the technology is improving continuously. Still, cooperation and effort are required to fully implement such a system.
“We saw, despite all the noise and activity in the industry, there was real opportunity,” Schmidt said. “We have vertical and horizontal competitors, all working together to define this approach.”
Overall, attendees agreed that while the use of RFID is a continual learning process; once its exact use can be understood, it proves itself an invaluable part of the industry.
“It’s a new technology that allows us to take things better … we’re all in a learning stage and it’s getting better,” said Rick Markarian of Rockwell Automation’s Boston sales office. “The key is to realize you have different types of benefits, and look down the value chain to see savings and costs.”
Les Chappell is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.