Continental Tire Uses RFID to Keep Production Rolling

By Claire Swedberg

The company is utilizing Wi-Fi-based tags to locate components for its tire-assembly plant, reducing the time workers spend searching for parts and ensuring that they are used before expiring.

Continental Tire of the Americas has deployed an RFID system to help it reduce the time its staff spends searching for containers filled with components needed for tire assembly, as well as decrease the amount of waste by providing alerts when parts need to be used before becoming too old. The technology that is helping the firm to achieve this goal includes AeroScout's Wi-Fi-based RFID tags and MobileView software. The system went live in early 2010 at the company's assembly plant in Mount Vernon, Ill.

Continental Tire of the Americas is a subsidiary of Continental AG, which makes tires at 13 facilities worldwide, for all major automobile and truck manufacturers. The Illinois plant produces more than 1,000 car and truck tire stock-keeping units (SKUs) at its 60-acre (2.6-million-square-foot) facility, says Greg Pemberton, Continental Tire of the Americas' MIS director.

The company sought a solution for the factory's 500,000-square-foot passenger car and light truck (PLT) section. The tires are assembled from numerous components, built on a drum and then cured in a press under heat and pressure, after which they are tested on a finish machine to make sure the wheels are correctly balanced. Continental's PLT section has 30 tire finish machines and 300 curing machines, and produces 500 different SKUs.

The greatest challenges faced, the company reports, were the sheer size of the facility and the quantity of components necessary for tire manufacture, as well as the need to utilize rubber components quickly (since rubber degenerates over time, the firm limits how old such parts can be when used on its products). When specific components were required on a manufacturing line, employees spent considerable time searching for them.

"Our primary challenges were physically finding the components," Pemberton says. "We have a good inventory system. We knew what we had, but couldn't necessarily find them." Whenever parts needed at an assembly machine could not be found, he notes, production time was lost. What's more, if a component remained too long at the warehouse, it could pass its shelf life and be rendered unusable.

According to Pemberton, the company began with a pilot that involved attaching AeroScout RFID tags to 50 breakers—the 3- by 5-foot containers used for carrying tire components. The pilot proved that the technology could make it easier to locate specific carriers based on data culled from the carriers' tags, and Continental thus expanded the number of tagged containers to 550.

Continental Tire's staff inputs data regarding the components within each container, and also scans the bar-coded ID number printed on the exterior of the container's tag (the bar-coded ID matches the unique ID encoded on the RFID tag's memory). The tags' RF signals are received by Wi-Fi nodes, so the company installed additional Cisco nodes in order to enhance the granularity of location data throughout its facility. With this enhancement, the system is able to locate the carriers' RFID tags to within 15 feet on the floor.

AeroScout's MobileView real-time location software aggregates data regarding the tire components' locations, based on reads of each container tag, and "enables the sending of location-based alerts and provides map views of assets on the manufacturing floor," says Gabi Daniely, AeroScout's VP of marketing and product strategy. The solution includes Global Data Sciences' (GDS) Material Inventory Tracking System (MITS), which links the MobileView carrier location information with the "first in, first out" (FIFO) management and empty carrier data that the inventory system holds.

GDS divided the warehouse area into location zones measuring 88 square feet in size, says Tony Kirkpatrick, the firm's director of manufacturing logistics. The MobileView software could then issue an alert to the system when a component carrier passed from one zone to another. For example, a lift truck driver could be alerted if a specific carrier being transported were moved to the incorrect location. The MITS software also enables material handlers or truckers and company managers to search for a particular component, either by its ID number, tread type, material code or date of manufacture, or by some other category.

Each of 20 forklift trucks was equipped with an industrial computer from Glacier Computer, containing a touch screen for accessing data from the MobileView software via the Wi-Fi network. The truck screen can display a schedule indicating which machines will need which components, as well as the location of the breakers containing those particular parts.

When a component is required at a specific station, the MITS software identifies the part for the job order (based on its type, location and age), and receives the real-time locations of the appropriate breakers from MobileView. The forklift drivers—known as material handlers, or tuggers—can then view the component carrier needed for pickup on the display, as well as the zone in which it is located, and the MobileView map will show where that specific breaker is located within that 88-square-foot zone. Tuggers can then retrieve that breaker and drop it off at the appropriate workstation. Management can see the breakers' locations in real time and, based on that information, can determine when components need to be reordered.

Continental Tire of the Americas reports that the system helps it maintain an optimal level of material and component inventory on the shop floor, by providing visibility into when part stock is running low. The system is also being used to improve workflow, by allowing management to track a particular container from the point of component production to consumption at the tire-assembly station.

Since installing the RFID system, Continental has reduced the loss of tires due to component expiration by 20 percent, though Pemberton does not indicate by how much the tire production rate had increased.