Aerospace Manufacturer Reduces Waste via RFID-based Material Asset Tracker

By Samuel Shaw

Plataine says its solution can optimize production in a variety of industries, including furniture and apparel.

When companies work with expensive materials, waste can create significant costs. Physical distance between the planning and execution segments of a manufacturing process can exacerbate the issue. Plataine, an American technology firm, introduced its Total Product Optimization (TPO) software suite in 2007 to eliminate manufacturing inefficiencies.

The TPO suite consists of a planning pillar and a production pillar. The planning pillar uses optimizers—WoodOptimizer, FabricOptimizer and FoamOptimizer—that synthesize information about production orders and existing inventory, in order to determine the most efficient course of action. The RFID-based Material Asset Tracker (MAT) provides real-time production tracking of materials, tools or whatever else a user wishes to track. MAT feeds data back into the optimizer software, which updates the production plan accordingly. Michal Diga, Plataine's director of product management, notes that, for a variety of reasons, actual production often differs from the production plan. The MAT system updates the Optimizer software regarding the situation on the production floor in real time, thereby allowing it to best direct continuing production.

Since its 2007 introduction, the Total Production Optimization system has been deployed in the furniture, apparel, aerospace and defense industries. Five of the top seven U.S. upholsterers, including Bernhardt, Ethan Allen and Vanguard Furniture, have implemented the solution. The RFID-based MAT subsystem is currently used only in the aerospace and defense industries, but Plataine offers it to all TPO customers. Diga suggests that any company "producing goods from two-dimensional raw materials, such as textiles, composites, honeycomb, wood, foam and metals," could benefit from the material utilization and process improvements created by the TPO system. Looking forward, she adds, Plataine intends to integrate a wider variety of sensors and data loggers into its software's decision-making process.

With the Material Asset Tracker system, customers affix an RFID tag to any asset—product kits, containers filled with materials (or, in some instances, the materials themselves), tools or molds—that they wish to track. The solution is adjustable to monitor an item's location from zonal all the way down to sub-room level. The software purports to reduce human intervention and automatically archives production history, thereby allowing manufacturers to identify inefficiencies in their supply chain, and to ease audits and improve traceability.

Diga cites a TPO/MAT customer that produces parts for Boeing's 787 aircraft, as well as for several defense programs. The customer's particular challenge involved working with temperature-sensitive rolls of composite material. The material must be thawed before being cut, but its usability expires if it remains out of the freezer for a certain duration of time. The company was manually tracking each composite roll's temperature exposure on paper—and was losing $500,000 annually on expired material in the process. Moreover, the customer was cutting the same parts repeatedly, without regard to existing inventory. The TPO suite determines the optimal production pattern for a given day's production run, based on existing inventory levels. It then matches that production pattern to the most suitable composite roll. According to Diga, this practice "increased material yield by over 5 percent, while enabling a fully automated process for material selection and cut planning."

Plataine's TPO/MAT customer is using Elpas' Eiris middleware to integrate with Impinj Speedway readers with passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags made with Impinj's Monza chip. The firm also recommends active Elpas tags. The software, however, can operate with any active or passive tag, depending on a customer's particular needs.

The Total Production Optimization suite is provided on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis. This arrangement, Diga claims, reduces up-front costs and delivers a positive return on investment within months. The software integrates data culled from a number of sources, including sensors for measuring such things as temperatures. This allows users to track location, temperature, and time elapsed during various stages of production. The TPO suite processes this data in real time to optimize the manufacturing process. Users can set thresholds—for materials left out of the freezer for a specified span of time, assets out of position, or production bottlenecks—and receive e-mail or mobile alerts.

The TPO software bridges the gap between customers' enterprise resource planning, material requirements planning, and manufacturing execution systems. Plataine describes its approach to the manufacturing process as holistic. In practice, Diga reports, this means that the software takes into account a customer's order, date of delivery, parts on hand and material inventory. Customers are drawn to the system, she says, because "[they] are struggling with the siloed nature of their [manufacturing] systems, operated by different people, sometimes in different locations… creating inflexible and inefficient production plans."

Efficient production can make the difference between enterprise growth and bankruptcy, Diga notes. Plataine's product aims to reduce costs, improve quality control and increase competitiveness for its customers.