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Pilot Aims to Prove Passive RTLS Success for Manufacturing Site

RTV Engineering has built a solution leveraging RF Controls' overhead reader and antenna system to track the locations of a manufacturer's bins of materials as they are stacked seven bins high on metal racks, thereby enabling the company to know where its components and materials are located in real time.
By Claire Swedberg

In the case of the manufacturer tracking its raw materials, RTV was brought onboard to solve a problem that other RFID deployments had failed to address: effectively tracking the locations of materials at the item level as they are stored and then used during manufacturing. The firm had looked into other passive RFID systems but found them lacking. Standard passive RFID reader portals, for instance, can track when tagged goods passed through those portals and thereby identify the general zone in which an item was moving. But the company wanted to do better than that—it sought to know the specific aisle in which each bin of material was transported.

The firm did not want to invest in an active RFID system with battery-powered tags, however. RTV thought it could do better than merely identifying the aisle in which each bin was located. It brought in RF Controls for an overhead passive RTLS solution. "If people are still looking at fixed point [portal] reader technology, you're back in the 20th century," Veiga states. "The technology has moved on." He first witnessed RF Controls' readers in use at the 2018 RFID Journal LIVE! event, he says, and was impressed that the passive RFID-based RTLS could help it to serve its customers.

RTV Engineering Robert Veiga
Therefore, RTV and RF Controls set up a pilot with the manufacturer, with the aim of providing an end-to-end solution that indicated not only the aisle or rack, but also the specific compartment on a rack in which each bin was located, with 95 percent put-back accuracy. The conversations for the pilot started about a year ago, but actual development work didn't begin until about five months later. The company then provided a business-analysis process before deploying the solution.

RTV was already experienced with large manufacturing sites and warehouses, such as the one it was working with during the pilot. Its other customers' facilities are often millions of square feet in size, with a ceiling height of 25 to 50 feet. The space near the ceiling can be crowded; for instance, gantry cranes may be travelling down bays and sections of warehouses, making it challenging to install overheard RFID readers. "You can't hang an antenna below where the gantry crane will be," Veiga explains. In fact, the manufacturer conducting the pilot has a ceiling height of approximately 34 feet. "RF Controls is the only passive RTLS solution I've seen that can trace assets at those heights with that level of accuracy."

The technology, if required—using overlapping scan areas from two antennas—also provides 3D location co-ordinate data so that the manufacturer can understand how high on a rack a tagged items is being stored. "Most [RFID systems] offer X and Y positioning," Leone says, "but RF Controls gives us X, Y and Z." For the deployment, RTV installed five RF Controls CS-445B Smart Antenna units—each with a built-in reader and phased-array antennas—to cover a 100-foot aisle. A variety of tags were tested, such as those from Confidex and Omni-ID, as well as Metalcraft tags, each attached to a plastic or metal bin or tote.

The Site Director software, residing on a local server, was programmed to identify, locate and track each tag in 3D within each of the shelf bin compartments, which are stacked seven layers up. As a tagged item passes down the warehouse aisle, the UHF RFID tag's ID number, linked in the software to the material stored in the tote or bin, is captured by the reader antennas. That ID, along with the calculated location, provided by RF Controls, is continuously sent to the software as it moves.

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