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Innovative Manufacturing Execution System Reduces Barriers to RFID Adoption in South China

Factory operators are partnering with academic researchers and government agencies to develop an MES that can help overcome concerns regarding high costs and risks, as well as the high level of technical skills required for implementation.
By Kurt Hozak
Mar 17, 2013

Government agencies, industry and academia in China are partnering to develop an RFID-enabled manufacturing execution system (MES) that promises to reduce barriers to the adoption of radio frequency identification. MES solutions perform sophisticated scheduling, control and tracking of shop floor production processes. An RFID-enabled MES provides better data collection regarding inventory, personnel, equipment and processes compared to systems using alternatives such as bar coding or manual data entry. Improved data collection, in turn, makes possible a variety of other business benefits (see RFID Gains Traction at John Deere for related discussion).

Despite those benefits, "RFID-Enabled Product-Service System for Automotive Part and Accessory Manufacturing Alliances" reveals that several factors inhibited many Chinese companies from adopting RFID-enabled MES solutions. Three so-called "high problems" cited were high cost, high risk and the high level of specialist technical skills required to implement the system.

Huang et al. found that companies had significant concerns about the costs of reengineering their processes to support RFID, and to integrate the RFID system with their existing information systems. Potential RFID adopters also perceived risks with trying to employ heterogeneous technologies and associated standards that change quickly, become obsolete and are difficult to integrate. Huang and his colleagues noted that even after attending seminars and training, a business' staff members often "had little knowledge about and skills with RFID technology," and felt that it would be "more expensive to invest in acquiring RFID know-how skills than acquiring RFID devices." Many potential adopters concluded that it was too difficult to obtain the skills necessary to successfully implement a complete system, due to the complexity of configuring and operating numerous hardware and software components.

To overcome the "three high problems" inhibiting RFID adoption, Chinese manufacturing firms are partnering with academic researchers to develop an MES to meet their needs, and to help implement the system. The AutoID for Manufacturing (AUTOM) research group at the University of Hong Kong has led the project, though researchers from other universities have also participated. The AUTOM team, which began working on the project in 2004, typically consists of a changing mix of about ten professors and graduate students. These members have backgrounds in industrial engineering and software programming, and help to design, develop and implement the system. As the head of AUTOM, Huang has coauthored many academic papers about the MES.

To date, approximately 10 companies have utilized some version of AUTOM's MES solution. Industrial and government sources funded HK$15 million (US$1.9 million) to AUTOM for work already completed, and provided an additional HK$36 million (US$4.6 million) for further development over the next five years. But the government and industry support goes beyond merely funding AUTOM. For example, the companies using the MES, as well as government agencies and researchers, regularly hold seminars, workshops and meetings at which they encourage each other and share valuable insights. Their collaborative relationship with the government agencies and industry helped the AUTOM team to win an award from Hong Kong GS1 for their technology platform.

A report titled "Event-Driven Multi-Agent Ubiquitous Manufacturing Execution Platform for Shop Floor Work-In-Progress Management," coauthored by Huang, provides an overview of how the AUTOM MES' technical architecture helped to reduce inhibitors to RFID adoption at one of China's largest air conditioner manufacturers. Before the MES deployment, there were communication breakdowns between the manufacturer's shop floor and its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that greatly reduced the effectiveness of both sides. The manufacturer wanted to integrate different types and models of technologies, including ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) and high-frequency (HF) RFID and bar-coding products from multiple vendors, that were each appropriate to specific functional needs. The real-time data collected by RFID needed to be aggregated, and workers at various levels within the organization required different types of information.

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