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BMW Finds the Right Tool

At its Regensburg assembly plant, the automaker is using RFID to identify cars and control the tools used to assemble them.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 04, 2009BMW is employing an RFID-based real-time location system (RTLS) at its assembly plant in Regensburg, Germany, to match the cars being assembled with the correct tools needed to perform the job, thereby automating a system to provide each vehicle with custom assembly, based on the car's vehicle identification number (VIN). The RTLS, provided by Ubisense, enables the automobile manufacturer to track the location of each car and tool within 15 centimeters (6 inches) throughout the 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the assembly line.

Because BMW's customers typically order specific customized cars, each vehicle is assembled according to a client's individual requirements, with specific interiors, seats and engine parts for each order. Providing custom-installation instructions to assembly-line operators has proved challenging for the high-end automaker. Each station along the assembly line, for instance, is afforded approximately 50 seconds to carry out its instructions before the next car takes that vehicle's place. Operators must know quickly which part is being installed on each car, as well as apply the appropriate torque for that particular installation—when employing a wrench, for example, to tighten bolts.

RFID tags attached to tools and vehicles make sure workers use the correct implement at the right setting.

The company had tested or tried multiple solutions, including passive and active RFID, infrared and bar-coding, to help operators quickly determine which type of assembly each car required as it arrived on the assembly line. Until recently, BMW had settled on a solution in which bar-coded labels were attached to a car's trunk. Operators would employ a handheld bar-code scanner to read each label's serial number, which was then sent to the manufacturer's back-end system, linked to the car's VIN and assembly requirements.

The operator would then put the scanner down and pick up his or her station's tool, which would receive instructions from a software application provided by German software firm IBS, and would be automatically programmed to correctly carry out the necessary task, such as operating at a specific torque for applying bolts. This system, however, was too time-consuming and allowed for errors. In some cases, the bar-coded labels simply weren't read because the operators forgot or lacked sufficient time to do so.

The quality-control department would often identify an incorrectly installed item on a completed car, and send the vehicle back to rectify the problem. The annual cost of such mistakes was as high as €1 million ($1.4 million), says Ubisense's CEO, Richard Green.

About 18 months ago, Green says, the automaker began discussing an ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID solution with Ubisense. "They were looking for a system with high reliability," he explains. Ubisense, working together with IBS, developed the BMW Tool Assistance System (TAS), which combines IBS' tool-controlling software with Ubisense's RTLS technology to help the car manufacturer locate and identify production assets, vehicles and torque tools at 120 tool stations, where 1,000 vehicles are typically assembled per day.

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