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RFID: greasing the wheels of Industrie 4.0

Discover modern manufacturing. Industrie 4.0 enables cyber-physical communication that’s faster and less error-prone. One key ingredient is RFID, which delivers the data granularity vital to identifying efficiencies, boosting agility and reducing costs.

Author: Carl Michener

The problem with most modern manufacturing environments is that things don't talk to each other. Decision-making is centralized and human-driven, which adds error and reduces speed. Companies like Siemens are changing this reality with Industrie 4.0, a movement to unify physical and cyber-physical systems with the Internets of Things and Services. The desired end result is smart, agile manufacturing environments in which cyber-physical systems perform tasks autonomously, diagnosing and making adjustments as needed. In such facilities, information is shared in real time between cyber-physical systems and humans, ideally both internally and with suppliers.

Nordic ID_forklift Pic

It's a big job. Developing smart systems that self-diagnose and communicate with each other in real time demands universal standards that apply to many different practices and applications. Industry players like Siemens and Bosch are hard at work putting those very standards together. One constant in such environments is RFID-a technology that brings real world advantages to IT systems.

"Modern systems will create a digital twin of a product, of a plan, of everything that needs to happen system-wise," explains Markus Weinländer, Head of Product Management for SIMATIC Communication Products at Siemens' Process Industries and Drives Division. "But of course there is always discrepancy between an ideal digital print and what is happening on the shop floor."

Weinländer explains how RFID is used to synchronize the ideal scenario with reality-by finding discrepancies through tracking. "Manufacturing environments with IT systems, especially those that take big data approaches, need to collect information automatically and synchronize plans with what's happening on the factory floor." RFID performs several functions in this respect: collecting sufficiently detailed data to enable analysis and prediction, and making sure that reality jibes with that prediction. "The more information you have in the cloud," continues Weinländer, "the greater the need for synchronization in factories."

Tracking supplies, equipment, inventory and the evolution of a finished product forms a big part of ensuring efficiency. Imagine a complex manufacturing environment-aerospace for example-in which there are 10,000 distinct component SKUs, yet there is never a shortage in supply and consequently no work stoppages. Each work area, tens of square metres in size, is replenished as soon as available components reach a minimum number. As RFID tags are read and machining specs change, machines adjust automatically to exactly match the new specs. Such scenarios are possible because RFID inputs have evolved from fixed readers to networked fixed readers, and then to networked area readers.

"This is happening now-it's not new news," says Atte Kaskihalme, Business Area Director for Nordic ID. "We have reached the stage where you can track everything all along its journey through a manufacturing environment, from components to finished products, from tools to uniforms and containers."

Some companies are using RFID's tracking abilities to provide value-added services. A European uniform rental company, for instance, leverages RFID to offer a paid on-premise security checking service that ensures all of their customers' workers end up with the right gear every day.

Kaskihalme likens what's happening in RFID to telecom. First there were fixed systems. Then the Internet came to public telephone networks, closely followed by local private networks, which became VOiP-enabled. Now Europe and other jurisdictions are approaching a uniform VoIP-based system. As that has happened, the role of the telcos has changed. They are no longer selling and installing PBXs or sending workers out to make moves, adds or changes. Now they mostly just sell services.

RFID is moving in the same direction. In the early days, separate readers were connected to local systems. Then fixed and mobile readers began to share the same network, talk the same language, collect data together and provide complete visibility. "Where we see the industry moving next," predicts Kaskihalme, "is into value-added data analytics services." In this nascent Internet of RFID readers or 'IoRFID', pre-filtering and analysing all this data can add tremendous value to a manufacturing environment. Remotely controlled fixed reader networks, supplemented with data from handheld readers, can deliver use case-specific data via cloud-based services to help increase efficiency, build added agility or predict future needs.

Much of this data comes from information written onto component tags during their journey, but it can also come from tag-based sensors. Sensors are used in many different industries to measure movement, temperature, humidity, moisture and other parameters. In a home care situation, a nurse or caregiver can tell if an adult diaper is wet, and in a testing environment a Mercedes-Benz engineer can tell if the newest SL model prototype has too much water ingress at the bottom of the door seal.

Automotive

No sector is approaching Industrie 4.0 as quickly as the German automotive sector. Placing RFID sensors throughout vehicle assemblies to detect water ingress has become a standard part of testing, but that's only a small part of the story. Danny Collinson, who heads up sales in Germany for Nordic ID, is witnessing first-hand what is possible. "What we are seeing is that all automotive manufacturers in Germany are quickly moving to adopting the same set of standards. This is translating into processes that are smoother, faster and less error-prone than ever before."

Danny explains that when a car manufacturer receives prototype parts from a supplier, almost every part comes with an RFID tag. During testing, engineers know right away where each part of an assembly was built, when it was received and when it was assembled into the vehicle. This serialisation reduces error and increases turnaround speed by enabling engineers to communicate to the supplier very precisely regarding modifications that are required. Since all manufacturers subscribe to the same standards, all suppliers can rise to a high level of sophistication with one technology set, instead of investing in multiple systems to serve the needs of multiple suppliers.

Other manufacturing environments may not have reached the point where they can leverage RFID data to a very high degree-either for efficiency or analysis-but the possibility is there, especially in the provision of curated big data. With the advent of IoRFID, providing added value through data analysis is without a doubt the direction that the RFID world is heading.

The ultimate evolution of IoRFID could be RaaS, or RFID-as-a-service. Imagine subscribing to an RFID solution that comes with supplier-driven, bespoke installation and setup; a prescribed equipment evolution path; and service level agreements. Your custom dashboard shows real time metrics of all kinds, while powerful, cloud-based analytics enable you to produce reports that identify efficiencies that will increase speed, boost agility and drive down costs.

Atte _Danny _Markus

Left: Atte Kaskihalme, Business Area Director (Logistics & Manufacturing) of Nordic ID

Middle: Danny Collinson, Area Sales Manager (Logistics & Manufacturing for Germany, Austria, Switzerland) of Nordic ID

Right:  Markus Weinländer, Head of Product Management for SIMATIC Communication Products at Siemens' Process Industries and Drives Division, Siemens AG Industry

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