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Electronics Factory Uses RFID to Manage Assembly of Cisco Circuit Boards

The system, which has improved production efficiency, is the result of a combined effort between Cisco Systems and Jabil, the company that assembles its products.
By Claire Swedberg
May 25, 2012Electronics manufacturer Jabil has been applying radio frequency identification tags to some of the printed circuit boards assemblies (PCBAs) that it manufactures for Cisco Systems. As a result, according to B.J. Favaro, Cisco Systems' supply chain manager, and Bill Hajje, Jabil's global process manager, the firm has improved the efficiency of its production process by approximately 80 percent, benefitting both companies.

In 2008, a Cisco hardware engineer collaborated with Jabil to employ RFID in a circuit-board design to store data about the host board. At that time, Jabil began placing EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags containing 512 bits of user memory on each of a select line of circuit boards. The purpose, the companies report, was to replace paper and pen for recording data, such as a product's board ID, release version and test results, during the design stage. Jabil attached a Murata MagicStrap RFID tag (designed specifically for mounting on PCBs) to a copper-free zone near the circuit board's edge, and coupled it to the board's ground plane. An outside vendor provided software and systems-integration services for the RFID deployment.

Jabil's Bill Hajje
Last year, Jabil proposed using the RFID tags for purposes beyond storing board data. It suggested that the tags could be utilized for work-in-progress (WIP) to quickly and transparently identify boards as they pass through the various manufacturing steps. Jabil can then share this information with Cisco. In addition, the solution could be utilized for authentication purposes, in order to verify that a PCB was, in fact, manufactured by Jabil for Cisco. Initially, Favaro says, Cisco is opting to use the technology only for WIP applications. Authentication with RFID tags is not part of Cisco's immediate plans, he explains, since the company already has an effective authentication program in place.

Jabil proceeded to install Alien Technology ALR-9650 and ALR-9900 RFID readers at 14 locations within its main production facility in Shanghai, including at pack-out locations, where the PCBs are readied for shipment to Cisco. When circuit-board assembly begins, the MagicStrap tag is placed on the board along with other components, and the tag identification number (TID) is read and entered into the database. The circuit board's serial number and assembly number are then linked with that tag ID. During the assembly process, the board passes through a series of workstations. At each station, an Alien fixed interrogator captures that ID number and forwards it, along with the station's location identifier and a timestamp, to the back-end software, thereby creating a record of that PCB's arrival.

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