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Perfecting Just-In-Time Production

Johnson Controls makes car and truck seats that must be delivered to automakers in precise order for just-in-time manufacturing. The company has deployed a 13.56 MHz RFID system that has proven to be 99.9 percent accurate.
By Jonathan Collins
Aug 11, 2003
Johnson Controls' business is all about delivering what big automakers like DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors want when they want it. And that's one reason the $20 billion Milwaukee, Wisc.-based suppler of car and truck interiors decided to deploy an RFID system in its Livermore, Calif. production facility.
Foam cushions ready to begin the manufacturing process

The Livermore plant makes car and truck seats for just-in-time manufacturing at the New United Motor Manufacturers (NUMMI), a joint production facility of Toyota and General Motors. Johnson Controls has to ship up to 1,500 car seats daily to NUMMI's production line in Fremont, Calif., in the order that exactly matches what NUMMI has asked for. If any of the 20 or more deliveries made each day has a single seat that is the wrong type or not in the correct sequence, Johnson Controls could bring its customer’s car or truck production line to a grinding halt.

To ensure the accuracy of its seat shipments, Johnson Controls deployed an RFID system that improved its ability to deliver the correct number and type of seats in the exact order demanded. The system also smoothed the process of producing a range of seats for cars and trucks.

"Our previous ID system involved basic clipboards and checklists located with operators at each station of production, inventory and shipping," says Fred Zaske, an electrical engineer at Johnson Controls, which is based in Livermore, Calif. "We needed to find a way to eliminate the human error that was prevalent with an operator ID system."

Zaske initially looked at a bar code system, but it proved to be unsuitable because of the dirty and often abrasive conditions on the production floor meant the bar code labels would often get dirty or damaged, rendering them unreadable. "Bar codes were also more susceptible to misreads and would cost us a great deal of time to troubleshoot while on the line," says Zaske.

While at a trade show, Zaske learned about RFID at a booth belonging to Escort Memory Systems, the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based company that went on to supply the equipment for and deploy Johnson Control’s current RFID system. The system appealed to Zaske because the RFID tags could be encased in hard plastic to protect them from damage, and they could be read without line of site.

To meet NUMMI’s just-in-time production technique, Johnson Controls receives hourly seat orders via a modem transmission from the auto plant. The order is a list of serial numbers that not only specifies the quantity and seat models required but also the exact sequence in which they must be delivered and therefore loaded onto the trucks at Johnson Controls. The reason for the stringent requirements: Johnson Controls’ seat deliveries go to the production area at NUMMI, where the seats are unloaded directly onto the production line. If the company delivers seats in the wrong quantity or even in the wrong order, NUMMI’s production line can be brought to a standstill.

But Johnson Controls’ RFID deployment does more than just assure the correct delivery of its seats. It also enabled the company to improve its manufacturing system. "RFID has provided us with significant time savings and flexibility," says Zaske. "We can produce multiple models of car and truck seats on their respective lines without worrying about grouping or order until they have reached the final stages of the shipping line."

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