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Metal-Powder Factory Adopts IRID

To help it track production, a Swedish maker of metal powders switched from RFID to an infrared auto-ID system.
By Rhea Wessel
The powder maker installed the IRID tracking system in August 2006 on one of its factory lines in Höganäs. It used the system for three months and then expanded it to another production line in December. The company now has tagged 150 metal-powder containers that pass through the two production lines. The rectangular tags, about the size of a credit card, are bolted to a metal girder on the side of the containers. The containers, which are 3 meters tall, have valves to release the powder.

To enable Höganäs to monitor whether the valves are open and closed, Scirocco combined the IRID tags with a passive sensor (powered by the tag) that can determine the position of the switches in the motor-driven valves of the containers. The infrared signals carry the information about the valve's status together with the container's identification code. The alphanumeric identification code is programmable locally via the infrared signals. The visual marking on the container can be programmed directly onto the tag, eliminating the need to use cross-reference tables in the middleware.

Staffan Sjögren, Scirocco's managing director
When containers of unprocessed metal powder arrive by truck, an interrogator mounted at the factory door reads their IRID tags. The containers are then moved along an automated processing line where materials are added to the powder, and the containers are shaken. Each production line has about 10 IRID interrogators, which are mounted at each of the processing stations. The reading distance varies according to the station, but is typically less than 2 meters.

The containers pass through further production steps and are emptied after the IRID interrogator gives the OK to the system to open the valve when the IRID system has registered that the right container has been put in position. The metal powder then passes through a hole in the floor and onto a belt that transports it to furnaces and other processing equipment. At the end of the processing line, the different grades of metal powder arrive in automatic filling stations for loading into strong bags or other containers for shipment to customers.

"The application gives Höganäs control over the logistics in their fully automated yet highly flexible factory and lets them trace production of batches if necessary," Sjögren says. Although Höganäs declines to disclose what sort of return on investment (ROI) it is getting from the application, Sjögren estimates the company already has attained an ROI.

"Compared to the capital that can be freed up from a processing line of this size by perfect planning and freedom from unintended downtime on the line, the investment cost is a minor expenditure," Sjögren says. "Further, the traceability that an automatic identification system can offer gives extended possibilities to know which lot of raw material ended up in a certain product for a specific customer."

Later this year, the company plans to expand the IRID application to its plant in Halmstad, where recycled metal is melted and made into raw powder that is shipped to its factory in Höganäs for processing. IRID interrogators will be used at the Halmstad plant to identify containers being filled with metal powder. This will allow the company to use IRID via a central database to synchronize planning and transportation between the two sites.

Sjögren, who worked many years in RFID R&D for Philips and other companies, founded Scirocco in 1997. Three years ago, he converted the company from a consultancy to one with its own products—the Scirocco IRID system. Scirocco developed IRID after realizing there was a gap in the market for RFID systems with read ranges of 0.5 and 3 meters, especially in applications for factory automation and transportation logistics. Sjögren says that the RFID interrogators for such applications also tend to be too expensive and do not operate well in metal environments.

Scirocco has installed IRID applications in the United States for a number of companies. These firms are using IRID to identify trucks and trailers as they are driven onto truck scales, through entrance gates or to fuel filling stations.

Tagged containers of unprocessed metal powder arrive at the factory by truck.

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