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RFID Helps ZF Friedrichshafen Maintain Factory Infrastructure

At its automotive transmission plant in Saarbruecken, Germany, workers use RFID to identify and record the repair history of motors that power its conveyor systems and other machinery.
By Rhea Wessel
Mar 24, 2009ZF Friedrichshafen, a manufacturer of automotive transmissions and chassis, is employing radio frequency identification to improve the maintenance of motors that run its production machinery at its factory in Saarbruecken, Germany. After having a good experience using passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags to improve the management of parts at its Friedrichshafen plant (see RFID Helps ZF Speed Transmission Shipments), ZF began expanding the use of RFID across its company, which operates 119 production sites and reported sales of €12.6 billion ($16 billion) in 2007.

In Saarbruecken, where Friedrichshafen makes four-, five- and six-gear automatic transmissions for cars, the company has tagged 6,000 motors that run its production machinery and conveyor systems. These motors must be maintained and serviced at regular intervals—usually, every two to three months—to ensure that production equipment continues running.

A worker uses a handheld reader to interrogate a motor's RFID tag (protected by a round, gray plastic housing).
Before introducing RFID, ZF relied on metal tool identification plates that were bolted onto motors and could be read by employees. When workers needed to identify the correct motor to remove or repair, they had to visually match the number on the metal plate with that on the work order. Oil and dust, however, often made it difficult to read the numbers, says Jürgen Kusper, a project manager responsible for ZF Saarbruecken at Tricon Consulting, an RFID software and hardware provider located in Austria, and the systems integrator for this project.

Now, with RFID, workers utilize a handheld reader to interrogate the tags and confirm that the motors are, indeed, those in need of repair. They no longer need to worry that a tool's identification number is not visible. Since production machines must always remain running, employees must switch out entire motors in order to make repairs or conduct inspections. The motor is removed from the production machine, a replacement is installed and the broken model is moved to the spare-parts warehouse and repair workshop. After the motor is repaired, a worker types in the number on the last paper repair order into the handheld reader, and the system writes the repair data to the tag.

The RFID system's rollout began in mid 2008. During this rollout, every motor in the plant was fitted with a passive high-frequency (HF) RFID tag when it was moved to the spare-parts warehouse for routine or special maintenance. The tags contain NXP Semiconductors' 13.56 MHz Mifare chips that are also frequently used in transit applications. ZF chose passive HF RFID tags because it did not require long read ranges. Tags are located within a round, gray plastic housing bonded to the motor. The metal tool identification plates on which the company previously relied are mounted next to the RFID tags, in order to provide a visual backup.

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