It’s a challenging time for manufacturers and yet an exciting one too. Rarely have there been greater opportunities for global trading than there are today, and there is huge potential for growth. In developing markets especially, however, unless these opportunities are managed efficiently, increasing costs – of inventory in particular – make it ever more difficult to protect gross margins.
The never-ending quest for progress demands continuous innovation, yet many of the systems that are in place to support manufacturing operations today are deeply embedded, legacy applications that are difficult either to replace, or to improve in any way that adds real value.
So how do manufacturers gain a competitive advantage under these conditions?
One proven method is to take control of manufacturing by means of improved supply chain visibility, so that human ingenuity and common sense can regain control.
There is a clear and direct link between improving the flow of information and improving the flow of materials. In other words, by keeping your finger on the pulse of change, manufacturers remain agile and in control, and able to manage ever-increasing levels of complexity and variety.
So how do you find a solution provider that will be flexible enough for your manufacturing business’ needs, and what are your constraints?
Cost is often the first consideration and there are many all-singing, all-dancing solutions that would be ideal but unfortunately cost a small fortune.
On the other end of the scale, many of the lower cost options are pretty inflexible and while they may help solve some issues, there’s more often than not, a compromise in terms of functionality.
WAERlinx is a purpose-built suite of applications (Kitting, Kanban, RFID, WMS, VMI, Capacity Management) with a background in the demanding field of Aerospace supply chain management that is flexible by design. Customers can choose the applications that meet their requirements, with no need to change their existing ERP and MES systems in order to get there. WAERlinx simply bolts on, to enhance and improve what already exists.
WAERlinx’ purpose-built console of operational and management information, presented using information gathered from multiple systems and facilities within the organisation, helps to:
… and reduce costs
Understanding and making the key decisions at the start of an RFID project makes all the difference between success and failure. These are our top 7 agenda items when discussing RFID feasibility.
Active or Passive tags?
Active tags emit a stronger signal, and do so without activation from an RFID reader. They continuously ‘chirp’ their identity. However they are battery-powered and cost more than passive tags. Passive tags tend to be smaller than active tags, and have a longer lifespan. If a tag only needs to respond at the time when it is read, then this would be a strong point in favour of selecting passive tags. Active tags should only be selected over passive tags if there is a compelling reason for doing so. In our experience, passive tags will provide an ideal solution for automated inventory control, but without the cost of active tags.
Required read range
The distance at which tags need to be read influences not only the choice of tag, but also crucially the choice of reader too. Some key questions to consider are: How far will the reader be from the tag that it is reading? Will tags have different orientations when they are read? What are the spatial dimensions of the area where read coverage is needed? The choice of hardware must be proven to achieve the read requirements that are set out by the answers to these questions. With RFID, there is no single ‘best’ solution, and particular care is therefore needed in choosing the right equipment.
Selection of tags
The primary consideration when selecting tags is to find the optimal balance between tag size and required read range. As a general rule, the larger the tag the greater the read range. Next, consider whether there is likely to be interference from any electromagnetic source. Today, tags are optimised to work either on metal, off metal, or near to metal. Consider also whether the tags will be subject to physical contact or impact. Are any special coatings needed for the tags?
Attaching tags to assets
Think carefully about how and where tags will be attached. Obviously a secure attachment, which does not affect the integrity of the asset to which it is attached, is essential.
Think through how tags will be programmed with unique information, such as an identification number. Tag commissioning should ideally be done away from the final asset location, and not after the tag has been fitted to the asset itself.
Once the system has been designed, is it essential that it is thoroughly tested in the actual operating environment where it will eventually be used. Sources of interference in the actual operating environment can give rise to test results that are significantly different from those achieved in a different location, such as a design office for example.
Research new applications for RFID
RFID technology is evolving continuously at the moment. New, innovative devices and applications are being released all the time. It is very worthwhile keeping up to date with these, since any one of them could be ideally suited to the requirements of your project.
In recent years, the maturing of RFID and Cloud computing have followed a similar trajectory from niche specialism to mainstream business tools. Their convergence forms a key part of the emerging concept of “The Internet of Things” where network enabled, geo-located objects and sensors provide the input for an array of imaginative software solutions touching all aspects of our lives.
Using web based software to track and trace RFID enabled objects around the world is an extremely powerful concept and it is one that we have sought to deliver to our customers. Waer Systems has a long history of solving complex business problems through our Cloud based software. Waer’s RFID architecture is a modular system that is designed to complement our core offering and it can also be deployed independently and interfaced directly to other systems. How this is achieved, is down to the cloud based architecture of Waer’s solution.
When we designed our RFID module, we wanted to make sure that it fitted into our existing cloud architecture. This would provide a number of key benefits for our customers:
Our approach to the architecture was therefore driven by ensuring that it was cloud based, open and extendable.
To implement our cloud based architecture we broke it down into discreet elements that would exist independently of one another:
Two key considerations for exposing these elements in the cloud are security and availability. We took steps to secure the hardware and software to make sure that information was only available to registered users within our software. To ensure availability we have implemented monitoring software and built in redundancy and failover to the hardware platforms.
A key objective in the design of our RFID solution is that it is interoperable with other systems on a global scale. For this reason it was critical that we adopted internationally recognised RFID tag encoding standards for our application. The obvious choice was the EPC Gen 2 standard which is the internationally recognised standard for UHF RFID item encoding.
This standard is controlled by GS1 and embodies a number of different encoding standards depending on the nature of the items being tracked. For part number/service identification, for example there is the Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) and for asset life-cycle tracking there is the Global Individual Asset Identifier (GIAI).
We therefore adopted this standard and based our tag and RFID hardware selection decisions on it. A key feature of the standard is that it is specific to UHF technology. UHF is the default choice when choosing RFID technology because of its long read range and as a result the choice of tags and hardware that support it is extensive.
RFID Gates are made up of one or more antennas attached to an RFID reader. RFID readers generally have 2 or more antenna ports. As an RFID tag passes through the antenna field, it is picked up and read by the reader. The reader can be configured for the environment in which it is working, the tag frequency for example or the read-range can all be set with the reader. It also handles some low level issues such as read collision.
The reader will capture the scans but in order to be of use in a cloud environment, they need to be made available over the internet. To enable this we use the Low Level Reader Protocol (LLRP). This protocol is designed to provide a common network interface to RFID devices and as such it is ideally suited implementing cloud based solutions. As long as the reader can be reached over the network then its captured reads can be interrogated by application software which, in the case of the Waer solution, is the RFID Gate Server.
The RFID Gate Server is a cloud based Web application which allows the operators to use and maintain the RFID gates. A single gate server controls all the gates in the network. Users can log into the Gate Server application at a given location and use it to interact with an RFID gate. If the gate is an operator driven gate, the operator can review the captured scans and then process them.
System administrators can use the gate server to create new gates and maintain existing ones. We provide several different options for how gates can be set up:
To make the architecture extendable we chose to separate the RFID Gate Server from core WAERlinx and deliver it as a separate autonomous module. This would give us the option to integrate it with other applications without needing to use our core engine. We therefore used XML over HTTP as a standard interface mechanism for the Gate Server and built a web service in core WaerLinx to interface to it.
Handheld RFID readers are necessary where the container is too large or heavy to go through the RFID gate or the environment is not suitable for a fixed gate. This might be the case if the site in question belongs to a 3rd party that is unwilling to install a fixed gate. A further feature of these devices is that they can be GPRS enabled so that they can be used in areas with limited access to standard wired and wireless networks. We designed the software running on these devices to operate in store/forward mode so if there is no access to any network at a specific location, for example a difficult environment such as one might find in mining, they can still be used to perform operations and then the scans can be transmitted later once the device is back in range of a network. They are also the preferred option when it comes to taking an RFID based stock count.
For our handheld application, we use the same XML interface as the Gate Server meaning that the handheld application is equally extendable.
Once the scans are captured in WAERlinx, all the power of our core product can be brought to bear on the management of the supply chain. As this application is delivered over the internet using the web browser, it completes the cloud solution for the RFID platform.
All of the functionality to support the movement of items and the stock-count process is found in core WaerLinx. XML requests are received from the Gate Server and Handheld scanners; they are processed and the system returns a response back to the calling device. This is where the more complex features like service management and alert handling are brought into play. The bulk of system maintenance is handled within the core product. Users can import new items into the application and create new sites and locations to move them into.
Using WAERconsole, operators can run detailed reports and enquiries on the supply chain that they are supporting. They can run a wide range or reports including the inventory position and transaction history against the various items. These reports can be displayed graphically as KPIs and are available on a range of devices including tablet and smart-phones.
WAERflow is our integration platform which enables information sharing between systems. This component can be used to interface data between partner systems to further extend the reach of the system.
A successful implementation of RFID in the Cloud needs some key ingredients:
Adoption of technology often follows a familiar pattern:
Internet commerce and mobile technology illustrate this – think of the dotcom bubble of the late 90s or the Apple Newton PDA. As with these technologies so RFID has been through its own cycle and has now stepped over the last hurdle to the point of where mass adoptions and exponential growth have begun.
In the mid 2000s RFID was the hot topic in the supply chain and elsewhere. Many organisations invested in R&D projects to attempt to deliver on the promise of RFID. Some succeeded but many did not. The hype receded and RFID became a topic that we would keep watching in the hope that it would one day meet our expectations. So what has changed?
Cost has always been a major factor in RFID adoption. There has long been a recognised price point of $0.05 at which item level tracking in a retail scenario becomes viable. We’ve not reached that point yet but it is very close. A typical passive UHF RFID label now costs approximately 10 cents but to the right organisation ordering in the right quantities, the 5 cent tag is a realistic prospect. Back in 2005 an RFID label would typically cost 40 cents and that is not comparing like for like because it would lack the qualities and performance that the intervening years of innovation have brought. So while tracking low value consumables such as loaves of bread is not quite there yet, there is an ever increasing range of items where the return on investment for item level tagging is evident. In the USA, Macy’s and Bloomingdales have extensive item level RFID tracking in place through projects undertaken in 2012. In the UK, in January 2013 Marks & Spencer announced the extension of its RFID program to cover all clothing and home products in its 700 stores. These examples only cover retail. Within asset management across all sectors from banking to oil and gas to healthcare there is an ever expanding array of items where RFID tracking is now a cost effective proposition.
Of course cost is not restricted to tags – the infrastructure of readers, antennae and supporting hardware and expertise also needs to be considered. Here too, costs are reducing as more manufacturers enter the market and the technology matures.
Another barrier to early adoption of RFID was the performance of the technology. In the mid 2000s RFID using UHF was in its infancy. In passive mode, only UHF offers the possibility of a read range of greater than 1 metre. Early systems would therefore need to work within the read range limitations of LF and HF tags or adopt more expensive Active tags. On top of this, each frequency has its own limitations with regard to how it behaves with materials with a high metal content or water content (including humans and animals).
In the intervening years the technology surrounding RFID has matured considerably. Passive UHF tags are now commonplace and are generally the preferred option in most environments. Coupled with this the standards of antennae design are much higher, further increasing range and reliability.
The range and standard of supporting hardware is much higher. More manufacturers mean more R&D and competition to produce the best readers at the most attractive prices. Huge strides have been taken in problems such as tag and reader collision. Specialisation has also increased as these manufacturers aim to support more diverse environments such as those involving extremes of temperature.
The technological advances associated with RFID are continuing. Innovation is continuing in areas such as energy harvesting and convergence with GPRS and Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS), security of data and miniaturisation.
A further important area of progress in the last 10 years is standardisation. Key to this was the publishing of the EPCGlobal Gen2 standard in 2004. This provides an international standard for encoding UHF tags. Organisations are able to secure unique ranges of numbers for items and assets that are to be tracked using RFID tags.
Prior to these standards being in place many RFID implementations suffered from being closed loops where an organisation would encode tags to their own specifications. The result was that while they were able to read and interpret the scans themselves they were not able to easily share that information with external systems.
As more items are being tagged it has become essential to be able to share that tagged data across organisations and systems. The update of the EPC Global Gen2 standard has been a key factor in enabling this.
There is still further to go in this area. A key problem is in the assignment of UHF frequencies where because of historic assignments of military and other applications, Europe, USA and Japan have different UHF frequency ranges for RFID. In practical terms this does not have a direct impact on implementation as there are many tags designed to operate across the full spectrum. It does, however, create a headache for the hardware manufacturers and prevents opportunities for tags to be optimised for a specific range if they are meant for global distribution.
Another important driver towards RFID adoption is the global user base. The sheer range and diversity of implementation that has evolved over the last 10 years is breathtaking. The technology has moved way beyond straightforward asset tracking. RFID is found in passports, animal tracking, aerospace safety checks, motorway toll payment, locating essential equipment and even patients in a healthcare environment, time checking at sporting events and a myriad of other applications on a global scale.
With a growing user base and diverse applications comes further investment and improvement in the technology together with a declining cost.
In 2012 the global RFID market was worth $7.67 billion and some analysts have valued the RFID market at being worth $70 billion over the 5 years between 2012 and 2017. For any organisation where the tracking of assets and inventory is important, having a program to realise the benefits of RFID will be vital in keeping pace with the competition.
The final element in providing the environment for exponential RFID growth is the availability of supporting software and expertise to manage and implement it. Historically, the market has been very focussed on hardware technology and its progress. A sign of maturity in the market has been the way in which software companies are now able to take RFID and readily integrate it into their products. The increasing quality and reliability of the hardware coupled with the emergence of global standards and protocols has been the key driver for this. RFID is no longer the preserve of RF hardware geeks, and the availability of expertise to implement RFID solutions is rising as the costs to design, develop and maintain those systems is decreasing.
At Waer Systems, we have used standards such as EPC Gen 2 and LLRP to develop and deliver Cloud-based RFID solutions for tracking assets through the supply chain. Using scanner and antenna hardware from Motorola and Nordic together with tag technology from Smartrac and Confidex we have harnessed the potential of RFID for our customers. They are able to use WaerLinx and WaerConsole to keep track of items, identify trends and instigate operational activity against those assets. Using our WaerFlow integration module they can readily integrate this information with their MRP and ERP systems.
It is this ability to provide off the shelf RFID solutions that rapidly deliver the benefits of RFID and allow it to be integrated across the enterprise that provide that final impetus for its mass adoption and exponential growth
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