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RFID Spells On-Demand

In this article, Dr. Robert Mayberry, Vice President, IBM Sensors and Actuator Solutions, discusses IBM's approach to RFID's capacity to automate the manufacturing process.
Jul 28, 2005This article was originally published by RFID Update.

July 28, 2005—In an age long before computers, when Henry Ford first began assembling cars, frames were placed on sawhorses lined up and down the center of a plant. Assembly line workers delivered parts from chassis to chassis installing one part at a time -- tires, fenders, doors and many more. Improvements, like a rope and winch system, sped up the assembly line process. And within five years, the time it took to build one car was reduced from hours to minutes. The significance of this invention to business and society wasn't necessarily the automobile, but the improvements in transforming a manual assembly line to an automated manufacturing process. Soon thereafter, innovative pioneers in other industries adopted the same techniques.

Today, nearly a century later, new technology innovations are offering equally radical ways to transform business processes like factory assembly lines. IBM, for instance, has transformed a 140,000 square-foot manufacturing building in East Fishkill, New York into the world's most advanced semiconductor manufacturing facility. It uses 300-millimeter (300mm) wafers to produce customized chips for everything from cell phones and video-game consoles to central processing units. Like the invention of the car, the invention of these products is changing the world.

But that's only half the story.

The "sense and respond" factory is one of the world's earliest examples of the transforming power of Radio Frequency Identification technology. It takes advantage of the latest innovations in wireless computing to automate assembly lines and supply chains by integrating the physical world of devices, computers, sensors and machines with business process applications.

Engineers used to read the labels on wafer carriers and then physically transport them to the appropriate tool stations, a process that resulted in costly errors such as the transposing of carrier ID numbers. In addition to eliminating such errors, IBM wanted to offer clients real-time visibility into their orders and shipments during different phases of the product lifecycle (which includes design, manufacturing, testing, packaging and delivery).

Addressing those needs, RFID readers were integrated into the plant's production tools to track its supply chain of wafer carriers, each of which can contain up to two million dollars worth of finished products. As a carrier moves along overhead tracks to different fabrication stations, the readers scan the carrier's tags to validate its location and instruct the tool to perform the required production steps. The nonstop plant automatically controls all aspects of the fabrication process, from managing product specifications to prioritizing jobs to transporting wafers between tool stations. Wirelessly accessible data allows employees to monitor the production line.

Today, errors are all but eliminated and employees can provide clients with timely, detailed manufacturing and shipment reports, and place orders for new parts based on real time visibility of inventory levels. Blending innovative technology approaches like Sensor and Actuator Solutions with new business methodologies like Product Lifecycle Management, IBM is helping factories transform and automate business processes to gain real time visibility of supply chains. IBM calls this approach Business Process Transformation Services, (BPTS).

We've come a long way from using a rope and winch system to assemble the automobile in the last century, to a new era of the on demand e-business factory. And it will be the early pioneers that deploy Radio Frequency Identification technologies in the coming years that will be the best positioned to gain a competitive advantage in their industries that may well endure throughout the 21st century.
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