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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

The research has been funded by different Chinese governmental agencies, with the ultimate objective of commercializing the system, although it has not yet been licensed or sold. All companies implementing the AUTOM MES thus far have been Chinese, though in principle, non-Chinese customers could use the system as well. While the solution was originally developed in English, the researchers created a way of supporting multiple languages with the same set of code.

The companies and employees that have used the AUTOM MES have sometimes been reluctant to make significant changes in how they perform their work in order to implement an RFID-enabled system, much less take full advantage of it. As such, ease of use and flexibility are reflected not just in the solution's technical aspects (e.g., plug-and-play device support and the SOA), but also in the relatively small learning curve and the amount of business process reengineering (BPR) required to use it. "Companies are still very reluctant to adopt the technology," Huang observes. "Ease of use is the top priority. They want custom solutions for their unique processes and operations. They would not accept the mindset that there exist standard best practices for them to adopt directly... Most internationally commercial systems / solutions are very complicated (though comprehensive). Our collaborators would not introduce these solutions if they cannot understand them easily."

Similarly, while Huang recognizes the importance of lean and Six Sigma techniques (see Lean and Six Sigma Create Valuable Synergies for RFID Adopters), he feels that the majority of the companies with which he has worked are relatively uninterested in them at this point in their implementation cycle. "Most companies did not want to change processes and operations too much, but still want to benefit from RFID solutions," he explains. "If we ask them to change, they would not start the project at all." As the companies gain confidence in using the technology, it will be interesting to see the extent to which they choose to employ lean and Six Sigma principles and tools in conjunction with RFID to further enhance their processes and stay competitive, and whether cultural differences will affect the benefits of the potential synergies.

One similarity that the AUTOM MES implementations have had with Western RFID deployments is that they benefited from being process-driven to solve significant operational problems, rather than being merely an IT department-driven technology project. That is not to say that the technology is not important—the technical architecture of the AUTOM MES helps make possible ease of use that is crucial to adoption and more effective deployments. Although the AUTOM MES has been well received, improvements are currently being developed to further reduce the "three high problems" during the coming years.

Kurt Hozak is an assistant professor of operations management at Coastal Carolina University's E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration, and a technology and operations management consultant.

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