BLE Provides RTLS for Tracking Production at Auto Ceramics Company

By Claire Swedberg

NGK Automotive Ceramics has reduced the amount of labor required to search for palletized products as they move through a partially automated system, using Quuppa technology and Thinkinside management software.

NGK Automotive Ceramics USA has boosted production at its existing facility with the help of technology, in order to meet the increased demand from an expanding customer base. The company has installed production automation and real-time locating system (RTLS) technologies to track the locations of its partially assembled products as it fulfills customer orders.

Since the system was taken live, NGK has reduced the number of labor hours required for employees to search for goods, while also increasing efficiency, says John Moranski, NGK's CIO and CISO. "We have seen immediate beneficial results," he states. The RTLS solution, provided by Thinkinside and known as ThinkIN, employs the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-based Intelligent Locating System from positioning technology company Quuppa.

NGK Ceramics, based in Mooresville, N.C., manufactures ceramic substrates used in catalytic converters for cars, trucks and off-road vehicles. Its facility measures more than 500,000 square feet in size and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The firm has been growing, NGK reports. When it opened in 1988, its entire customer base was in the immediate area, though its market currently includes a much larger population of customers from around the United States.

However, the company wanted to continue operating out of the same facility as it grew larger. That required some automation, and so it launched an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) to monitor parts as products are assembled. It also deployed automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that move pallets loaded with components as they proceed through the production process, as well as finished goods awaiting shipping.

The ASRS solution reduced the number of times goods and materials are manually moved, but it failed to alleviate the problem of storage space restrictions, and goods were often moved into an area where they could not be easily found. That meant the company required two workers during each shift to search for and move pallets.

NGK conducts inventory counts on an annual basis, in order to gain visibility into which goods have not yet been shipped or sold. That required manual efforts as well. In fact, locating and counting pallets necessitated about one week of work, during which production activities slowed down.

In 2016, the company began seeking an RTLS solution that could track the pallets, along with the goods or materials stacked on them. With the help of RTLS specialist Statler Consulting, it examined eight different solutions before selecting Quuppa's Intelligent Locating System, managed by ThinkIN's software. ThinkIN provides location intelligence for indoor spaces, using data from Quuppa Compatible's BLE tags and LD-7L long-range indoor locators, to deliver analytics, alerts and real-time data. The tags are provided by Quuppa, as well as third-party companies with which it collaborates.

The industrial plant required the system to track pallets, whether they were on the assembly floor or in stocking areas or corridors. It needed sub-meter location accuracy, since pallets were often packed or stacked closely together. In some locations, however—such as corridors, where the pallets were easier to locate—it only needed accuracy to within about 10 meters (33 feet). The ThinkIN system enables the company to achieve highly granular location tracking in some areas and wider zones in others, thereby saving unnecessary expense, according to Iacopo Carreras, Thinkinside's CEO.

The company piloted the system in September 2017, at which time it tested whether BLE technology could operate well in the highly metallic environment, says Fabio Belloni, Quuppa's co-founder and chief customer officer. It found that the technology worked well, then began building out a system to track pallets as they moved around the facility. "We have now completed coverage of the entire production facility," Carreras states.

The technology includes Quuppa's BLE tags attached to pallets, which transmit data to beacon receivers known as Locators, which are installed throughout the facility. According to Belloni, there are more in the storage areas and fewer in the corridors. "The tags chirp their signal," he explains, "and Locators on the ceiling look directly down" to receive those transmissions. The Locators employ Quuppa's angle-of-arrival (AoA) software to determine where each tag is situated as tagged pallets move around the facility. Altogether, ThinkIN installed approximately 95 BLE Locators, which capture transmissions from the BLE tags. The tags come with a battery life of more than four years, according to the company.

When a customer places an order, NGK assembles the necessary components and completes the production process for those parts. As they move through production, the components are transported on pallets. Typically, about 20 ceramic components—such as tubes used in catalytic converters—can be stacked on a single pallet, and an order could consist of dozens of pallets that move through a variety of processes prior to shipment.

As a pallet is loaded, a product travel ticket (PTT) is printed, indicating what product is on the pallet, along with any processes that must be accomplished, such as being fired in a kiln or staged for shipping. A QR code on the reusable BLE tag is scanned via a bar-code scanner, and is linked to the PTT based on the PTT's own QR code. The PTT and BLE tag are then both inserted into an envelope attached to the pallet. As the pallet moves through the production process, the location of that material or product is linked with its intended status. Typically, there may be 3,000 such pallets moving around the facility at any given time.

Employees or management can sign into the ThinkIN system, which resides on a local server, to gain a plant-wide view of where each pallet is located, what is each pallet contains and what its processes should be. Quuppa's software provides a visual display displaying all pallet locations as dots on a floorplan. ThinkIN then applies that data to business management, Carreras says. "Quuppa provides the dot on a map," he states, "and we transform that dot to create a history-management strategy." In that way, users can easily locate a pallet required for another process, as well as view historical data to understand potential bottlenecks.

Additionally, NGK has set up a geo-localized workflow in the software. Thus, if a specific tag's related TPP seems to be located in an area in which it shouldn't be, or has dwelled there for too long, an alert can be issue. With the system in place, NGK says it expects to achieve a return on its investment within two years, based on increased efficiency and the prevention of errors caused by the movement and location of pallets.

BLE offers a low-cost alternative to RTLS technology, Belloni says, such as ultra-wideband (UWB), which would require a greater infrastructure of receivers to identify tag movements via triangulation. According to Moranski, the system "provides a clean and easy-to-use Web browser interface. We can quickly enter data search values and select drop-down filters to control the visual display of the search results."

Moranski says users of the system have indicated that it makes their jobs easier, enabling pallets to be found more easily. That quick access to pallets has been the primary benefit, he adds, with workers saving hours per week, for each sift, that they previously spent searching for misplaced pallets.

NGK's supervisors and employees continue to generate new improvement ideas for this technology's use, Moranski reports. "These potential projects would have a beneficial impact on process efficiency and employee safety," he states. While the company is initially tracking its products based on customers' orders, Carreras says, it may opt to use the technology next year to track raw materials at the warehouse. "Another use case," he adds, "could be managing the movement of vehicles inside the facility for safety purposes."