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RFID Tightens Up Caterpillar's Assembly Process
The company's Belgian hydraulic-valve plant deployed a real-time locating system to ensure that workers use the correct wrench and torque to install hoses.
May 06, 2009—Caterpillar is employing a real-time location system (RTLS) at its heavy-equipment manufacturing plant in Belgium to ensure its hydraulic valves and hoses are assembled properly. When the company assembles its hydraulic valves at its plant in the Belgian city of Gosselies, it uses torque wrenches to fasten reinforced tube hoses—made of rubber and steel—to those valves. The valves, installed in the construction vehicles Caterpillar manufactures, are approximately the size of a car engine. When tightening a bolt that fastens a hose to a valve, a worker must apply a specific amount of torque—around 300 Newton meters (Nm)—in order for that valve to operate properly. Until recently, that tightness was adjusted using a manual torque wrench, and employees had to be trusted to apply the proper amount of Newton meters.
For its assembly process, Caterpillar utilizes a software system known as Protrac, provided by Belgian industrial software firm De Jaeger Automation, to track each part's assembly, as well as who assembled it, and when. The software, running on PCs installed at assembly locations, enables a staff member to input his identification number and key in details such as the type of work he is about to conduct, and the serial numbers of the components he plans to assemble.
Prior to Caterpillar's adoption of RFID, however, the tightness of the hose installation depended on the employee's judgment, with that person simply marking the parts with paint to help gauge the connection's tightness. Therefore, the company had sought a system that would reduce the number of hose-tightening errors, while also making it simpler for staff members to apply the appropriate amount of torque during the assembly process.
The plant, which employs approximately 4,300 workers, builds medium- and large-sized excavators and wheel-loaders. Caterpillar met with De Jaeger in 2008, says Benoit Degraux, Caterpillar's project director, and together the two firms developed an RFID-based system within the necessary price range.
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