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RFID Gains Traction at John Deere

The heavy-machinery manufacturer is using EPC Gen 2 tags to aid quality control, monitor work-in-process and streamline production.
By Beth Bacheldor
Oct 12, 2007John Deere, the Moline, Ill., manufacturer of agricultural and construction equipment and residential lawn mowers, has been testing and using passive RFID in its manufacturing operations for at least two years. Now, the company is ramping up its efforts. In May, John Deere began using EPC Gen 2 RFID tags to ensure products meant for repair don't end up at retail stores. This month, the company is launching an EPC Gen 2 pilot in one of its factories, to monitor work-in-process (WIP) and ensure parts are at the right spot at the proper time. The firm is also integrating an RFID system with its manufacturing execution system (MES) in another factory, to improve production efficiencies and accuracies for a product it is now launching.

According to Mark Moran, technology architect at John Deere, the company had a specific goal in implementing an automated tracking system to monitor outbound logistics operations that move products to retail stores: It needed to be sure products coming off the line with quality issues and marked with repair tags didn't end up on delivery trucks bound for retailers. Moran described his company's RFID initiatives at the EPC Connection 2007 conference in Chicago earlier this month.

Mark Moran
"Occasionally, products that had repair work to be done made their way out to retail shops," Moran says, adding that although it doesn't happen often, even one time can be very problematic. "Every time a product with a repair tag goes out, that erodes the John Deere brand."

Now, an EPC Gen 2 RFID label is affixed to each laminated paper repair tag placed on a defective product at the end of the manufacturing line. These products are pulled off the line and set aside to be sent back for repairs. RFID portals at eight dock doors have been equipped with built-in filters that trigger lights and horns if a tag is read, ensuring that no RFID-tagged products are loaded onto delivery trucks bound for retailers.

Although John Deere's passive UHF RFID implementation on outbound logistics has been going well, Moran says—particularly since switching to EPC Gen 2 tags at least a year ago—the company did not opt for passive UHF right out of the gate. Instead, it hosted what he calls an "RFID Bake-Off" last spring, testing EPC Gen 2 mount-on-metal tags, active tags and ultra-wide-band (UWB) tags in a real-time locating system (RTLS). All three tag types performed well during the "bake-off," providing accurate reads 100 percent of the time. The least-expensive solution was the UWB RTLS, while the most expensive was the active tag system.

Ultimately, John Deere chose EPC Gen 2 tags, since it already had experience with the technology and required no additional server or middleware. "We just put the tag on," Moran says. "The smart readers have filters that trigger the alarm. All that really matters is that there's a pattern—which is the tag's unique ID number—that the reader can recognize via the filter. If the filter sees this set of characters, then it reacts."

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