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Metal Finishing Co. Makes Monitoring Work-in-Progress More Efficient

Thanks to the newly RFID-enabled Lexmark T654 laser printer, the Wichita-based company expects to further streamline the way in which it tracks the items it tempers, plates, paints or peens.
By Claire Swedberg
ARS and Metal Finishing had determined that printing RFID tags in conjunction with production orders at the receiving dock would be the more efficient solution. Both the plain documents and RFID-tagged pages could then be tucked into a plastic sleeve, after which the sleeve and its paperwork would travel with the part as it moved down the line and on to shipping, with tags attached to the document and the item being read by interrogators at several points on the shop floor. The best solution for this plan, Metal Finishing ultimately decided, was an RFID-enabled version of the T654, which has multiple trays and the capacity to print both RFID-embedded pages and plain pages from a single command.

When Lexmark introduced the T654 monochrome laser printer in October 2008, the device lacked the ability to encode RFID tags. That deficiency was rectified last week, when the company announced the release of the UHF RFID option for that model. The option, an add-on paper drawer containing a built-in RFID encoder and installed within a printer in place of an ordinary paper drawer, is available for an estimated street price of $2,499 (in addition to the T654's $1,200 price tag), and can print and encode RFID label media at a rate of up to 20 pages per minute. The system can support a variety of adhesive labels and other print media, ranging in size from 5 inches by 7 inches to 8.5 inches by 14 inches, and the RFID tags can be embedded within the media either horizontally or vertically.

Metal Finishing is utilizing the T654 to print out an order's paperwork, consisting of up to 19 pages of plain text on regular 8-by-11-inch paper, as well as a cover page containing an adhesive RFID. The ability of the RFID-enabled T654 to print and encode a tag regardless of that tag's position or orientation permits the company to print tags with the RFID antenna positioned in such a way that the chip can be most easily read by interrogators on the shop floor, based on the size and shape of the item on which they may be affixed. Paper labels with embedded tags are placed in the RFID-enabled paper drawer. When Metal Finishing wants to tag an item, an adhesive RFID label is encoded with a unique ID number that is also stored in the back-end system, where it is linked to the work order regarding the item being tagged. Pinnacle Label, of Buffalo, N.Y., is providing the RFID-enabled paper being used by Metal Finishing.

In March 2007, Lexmark launched the T640rn RFID-enabled laser printer—the predecessor to Lexmark's RFID-enabled T654 model (see New Office Laser Printer Encodes Tags). The T640rn, however, could only print and encode tags oriented horizontally, says Eric Calvert, Lexmark's worldwide product marketing manager, whereas the new printer offers additional flexibility for end users, allowing the placement of a tag anywhere, other than within a half-inch-wide margin along the edges of an 8-by-11-inch page. The T654, Calvert says, can also accommodate up to three paper drawers to hold print media of varying sizes and quality.

When Metal Finishing first adopted its RFID system one year ago, the company eliminated manual entry and bar-code scanning of data, Babst says, thereby shortening the processing time of each order by 30 to 60 seconds. He predicts the new printer will shorten that time further. The next step, he says, is to expand the RFID system to some of Metal Finishing's customers by installing RFID-enabled Lexmark T654 printers at their locations so each item can be tracked from the time it leaves a customer's site bound for Metal Finishing, until it is processed and returned to the client. This will make it possible for Metal Finishing to know when a specific product has been shipped to its plant, as well as when it has been received back at the machinist's site.

"It's also a good sales tool," Babst states, "allowing us to provide a Web portal to customers to enter and look at their parts and their status." The payback of that service, he adds, is intangible "but we definitely see a benefit in it."

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