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Adding RFID to Ford's Supply Chain

An active-tag RFID deployment from TNT Logistics helps Ford automate workflow, provide real-time visibility, reduce inventory and prevent business interruption.
By Terry McIntyre
The MSC delivers small-lot, sequencing and metered parts to Ford's truck assembly line. Small-lot parts can be picked up by an individual and delivered in small plastic kanban totes, usually weighing no more than 35 pounds when loaded with parts. Sequenced parts are packed into custom-built racks in production order—a loaded rack weighs 1,000 to 2,000 pounds and requires a forklift to move. Metered parts are similar to small-lot parts but are transported in much larger containers that can weigh more than 500 pounds when loaded, requiring a forklift for movement. Prior to the RFID initiative, the operation experienced a series of disconnected electronic and manual processes. The possibility for business interruption—late deliveries, part shortages, misplaced or lost parts and so on—was always present.

WhereNet's active RFID tags emit a signal every four minutes and are tracked by a series of location sensors installed at TNT's MSC and inside the Ford assembly plant. The transmitted tag data is accumulated, sorted, evaluated and summarized into actionable dashboards in the form of charts and graphs indicating performance levels. The Internet-based graphical user interface (powered by Tibco General Interface, an Internet-application platform) was configured for the MSC outbound-load validation process, which displays rack load status on LXE mobile computers mounted on forklifts. For the RFID solution, TNT is using several different software applications, such as a warehouse management system (WMS), a warehouse tracking system (WTS) and WhereNet's Visibility Server Software (VSS), which provides the tools required to manage assets and the WhereNet Real-Time Locating System. The system is integrated using Tibco middleware to move transactions between the different applications.

The originality of the initiative hinges on deep partnerships with WhereNet and Tibco. TNT uses WhereNet's active-RFID based solutions on a daily basis to optimize outbound logistics in support of synchronous material flow. As Ford expands its use of active RFID tags, location sensors, WhereNet software and infrastructure—and continues to add more RFID-enabled sites to its supply chain network of suppliers, logistics providers and plants—the value of the network will increase. In the process, collaboration will also increase between all supply chain partners who collectively enable more lean and flexible processes.

RFID has the potential to transform manufacturing and retail industries. TNT and other early adopters have already witnessed the tangible benefits the technology has to offer for simplifying operational efficiency. By leveraging Tibco's next-generation active RFID software adaptors, businesses like TNT are now capable of fulfilling orders with the utmost accuracy, and delivering on customers' expectations and need for real-time information.

The seamless integration of technology at Ford, TNT, WhereNet and Tibco is strong evidence that the RFID project was a success. Real-time electronic connectivity across multiple platforms (third-party logistics providers, supplier and assembly plant) via electronic date interchange (EDI) has been in place for many years. But real-time visibility of physical parts as they move between multiple sites—synchronized with electronic data flow for event management to prevent business interruption—has never been done before.

Ford has an integrated active RFID solution that can be deployed around the world at more than 50 manufacturing sites to leverage the capital investment made in the WhereNet infrastructure. Success will be further measured through the expansion of this active RFID solution by implementing additional locations in the automaker's global supply chain.

Terry McIntyre (904-996-1960) is manager of corporate technology services at TNT Logistics North America. Come here him speak at RFID Journal LIVE! 2006, to be held May 1-3, on how TNT is using RFID in the automotive supply chain.

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