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Irish Factory Using Active RFID for 'e-Kanban'

A factory in Ireland leveraged its existing WiFi wireless LAN to support a new active RFID parts replenishment system. Workers at Thermo King, which manufactures temperature control systems used in logistics, use call buttons interfaced to active RFID tags to signal that parts are needed at workstations.
Feb 19, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

February 19, 2009—Thermo King, an international manufacturer of temperature control systems, has implemented active RFID for what it calls an "e-Kanban" parts replenishment system at its factory in Galway, Ireland. When available parts at assembly stations drop to pre-set levels, workers simply push a call button that is integrated to an active RFID tag. The tag signal is received by the facility's wireless LAN. The tag's transmission indicates the part number and location that require replenishment, and the system software orders a batch to be delivered to the appropriate workstation.

"They were previously using all kinds of manual processes that were not efficient, consumed labor, and were subject to human error," Amir Ben-Assa told RFID Update. He is industrial solutions marketing director for Redwood City, California-based AeroScout, whose WiFi-based active RFID tags, call buttons and software are used in the system. IMEC Technologies, a solutions provider with offices in Ireland, the UK and the US, integrated the AeroScout system with Thermo King's legacy Unified Wireless Network from Cisco Systems, which also carries wireless data from mobile computers and bar code readers on the shop floor.

There are approximately 100 call buttons and active RFID tags installed at the facility. The system covers all areas of manufacturing, and some workstations have more than one call button because multiple parts are used. Lean manufacturing principles are used at the factory, which produces refrigeration and heating units used in shipping containers, trailers, truck bodies, buses and railway cars.

"We needed a scalable solution to reduce the time for parts replenishment and to increase throughput and productivity," Thermo King supply chain manager Padraig Campbell said in AeroScout's announcement. "AeroScout and IMEC have helped us improve our operations while leveraging our existing wireless infrastructure."

Thermo King has been using the system in full production since last August but only recently agreed to announce the implementation after it proved to be reliable and to meet return-on-investment expectations, according to Ben-Assa. Thermo King is not providing details about time or cost savings or other ROI metrics, but did say the system has led to "a substantial reduction in line-side inventory." Thermo King is considering adding 500 more tags to track dollies and other equipment.

Thermo King is AeroScout's first publicly announced customer for a parts replenishment application. The company is best known for providing WiFi-based active RFID asset tracking systems in healthcare and industrial environments.
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