Innovative Manufacturing Execution System Reduces Barriers to RFID Adoption in South China

By Kurt Hozak

Factory operators are partnering with academic researchers and government agencies to develop an MES that can help overcome concerns regarding high costs and risks, as well as the high level of technical skills required for implementation.

Government agencies, industry and academia in China are partnering to develop an RFID-enabled manufacturing execution system (MES) that promises to reduce barriers to the adoption of radio frequency identification. MES solutions perform sophisticated scheduling, control and tracking of shop floor production processes. An RFID-enabled MES provides better data collection regarding inventory, personnel, equipment and processes compared to systems using alternatives such as bar coding or manual data entry. Improved data collection, in turn, makes possible a variety of other business benefits (see RFID Gains Traction at John Deere for related discussion).

Despite those benefits, "RFID-Enabled Product-Service System for Automotive Part and Accessory Manufacturing Alliances" reveals that several factors inhibited many Chinese companies from adopting RFID-enabled MES solutions. Three so-called "high problems" cited were high cost, high risk and the high level of specialist technical skills required to implement the system.

Huang et al. found that companies had significant concerns about the costs of reengineering their processes to support RFID, and to integrate the RFID system with their existing information systems. Potential RFID adopters also perceived risks with trying to employ heterogeneous technologies and associated standards that change quickly, become obsolete and are difficult to integrate. Huang and his colleagues noted that even after attending seminars and training, a business' staff members often "had little knowledge about and skills with RFID technology," and felt that it would be "more expensive to invest in acquiring RFID know-how skills than acquiring RFID devices." Many potential adopters concluded that it was too difficult to obtain the skills necessary to successfully implement a complete system, due to the complexity of configuring and operating numerous hardware and software components.

To overcome the "three high problems" inhibiting RFID adoption, Chinese manufacturing firms are partnering with academic researchers to develop an MES to meet their needs, and to help implement the system. The AutoID for Manufacturing (AUTOM) research group at the University of Hong Kong has led the project, though researchers from other universities have also participated. The AUTOM team, which began working on the project in 2004, typically consists of a changing mix of about ten professors and graduate students. These members have backgrounds in industrial engineering and software programming, and help to design, develop and implement the system. As the head of AUTOM, Huang has coauthored many academic papers about the MES.

To date, approximately 10 companies have utilized some version of AUTOM's MES solution. Industrial and government sources funded HK$15 million (US$1.9 million) to AUTOM for work already completed, and provided an additional HK$36 million (US$4.6 million) for further development over the next five years. But the government and industry support goes beyond merely funding AUTOM. For example, the companies using the MES, as well as government agencies and researchers, regularly hold seminars, workshops and meetings at which they encourage each other and share valuable insights. Their collaborative relationship with the government agencies and industry helped the AUTOM team to win an award from Hong Kong GS1 for their technology platform.

A report titled "Event-Driven Multi-Agent Ubiquitous Manufacturing Execution Platform for Shop Floor Work-In-Progress Management," coauthored by Huang, provides an overview of how the AUTOM MES' technical architecture helped to reduce inhibitors to RFID adoption at one of China's largest air conditioner manufacturers. Before the MES deployment, there were communication breakdowns between the manufacturer's shop floor and its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that greatly reduced the effectiveness of both sides. The manufacturer wanted to integrate different types and models of technologies, including ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) and high-frequency (HF) RFID and bar-coding products from multiple vendors, that were each appropriate to specific functional needs. The real-time data collected by RFID needed to be aggregated, and workers at various levels within the organization required different types of information.

To help meet those needs, the AUTOM MES unified the methods for accessing the different types of hardware, by providing a common interface with the various devices' unique drivers. The researchers sought to make the solution as easy to use and as flexible as possible, by making device use plug-and-play regardless of the underlying technology and vendor. The devices are accessed via Web services and XML-based rules specifying how data is to be collected and processed. A new operating system being developed by the researchers will manage the various devices and agents.

The AUTOM researchers have tried to achieve the ease of use championed in previous RFID Journal articles (see Lessons Learned From ERP Can Help Drive RFID Adoption and End Users Want an iPod). Huang offers the analogy that just as iTunes greatly simplifies the management of a range of Apple products, the MES' architecture would greatly reduce the technical skills required from end users to easily and effectively manage a wide range of automatic identification devices. He elaborates on his philosophies about usability by stating, "My vision for my team is, 'No documentation or training should be necessary if a solution is well designed according to the business processes and operations'—just like there is no training for e-banking operations and everybody is assumed to be able to use the services through well-designed facilities."

Some of the AUTOM MES architecture described in the academic papers is still evolving and being tested in pilot implementations. For example, the researchers are developing a graphical user interface that businesses can utilize in conjunction with an event-classification hierarchy to easily provide meaning to the data collected by the various devices. A process' real-world activities will be identified as low-level "essential" and "primitive" events that could be identified manually or automatically by RFID-enabled items. The events for those activities will be aggregated into "basic" events that will be used to represent a shop-floor process. More complicated or distributed processes form "complex" events, while those directly affecting decision-making are deemed "critical" events.

Workflows will be graphically defined using the company-specific events, and be converted to XML Process Definition (XPDL) files that will help integrate the real-time data from the shop floor system with higher-level enterprise systems. The AUTOM team is developing what it calls "visibility explorers," which will make possible the principle that "what you see is what you do; what you do is what you see" (see Managing Growth for related discussion about visibility software). The aforementioned hierarchies and workflows will help to ensure that the proper individuals and enterprise applications see the correct data at the right time.

"RFID-Enabled Product-Service System for Automotive Part and Accessory Manufacturing Alliances," by Huang et al., describes additional AUTOM MES and software integration functionality being developed to enable a business model that makes it even easier to overcome the "three high problems" inhibiting RFID adoption. The new functionality will help partner companies to share RFID-enabled resources, services and competencies, allowing them to further lower their risk, reduce investment, decrease the amount of technical skills individually required, accelerate the installation process, and improve the system's maintenance and reliability. For example, companies in an industrial park that are part of a manufacturing alliance or the same supply chain might invest in and share the same software, hardware and technical support specialists. When business events occur that affect the other partners using the system, the appropriate parties will be made aware in real time. This is made possible because the system is being implemented as software as a service (SaaS), centrally hosted as part of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that facilitates integration. The new functionality will enable greater coordination and collaborative decision-making between the partners, which is especially important when processes in their supply chain are highly intertwined.

The research has been funded by different Chinese governmental agencies, with the ultimate objective of commercializing the system, although it has not yet been licensed or sold. All companies implementing the AUTOM MES thus far have been Chinese, though in principle, non-Chinese customers could use the system as well. While the solution was originally developed in English, the researchers created a way of supporting multiple languages with the same set of code.

The companies and employees that have used the AUTOM MES have sometimes been reluctant to make significant changes in how they perform their work in order to implement an RFID-enabled system, much less take full advantage of it. As such, ease of use and flexibility are reflected not just in the solution's technical aspects (e.g., plug-and-play device support and the SOA), but also in the relatively small learning curve and the amount of business process reengineering (BPR) required to use it. "Companies are still very reluctant to adopt the technology," Huang observes. "Ease of use is the top priority. They want custom solutions for their unique processes and operations. They would not accept the mindset that there exist standard best practices for them to adopt directly... Most internationally commercial systems / solutions are very complicated (though comprehensive). Our collaborators would not introduce these solutions if they cannot understand them easily."

Similarly, while Huang recognizes the importance of lean and Six Sigma techniques (see Lean and Six Sigma Create Valuable Synergies for RFID Adopters), he feels that the majority of the companies with which he has worked are relatively uninterested in them at this point in their implementation cycle. "Most companies did not want to change processes and operations too much, but still want to benefit from RFID solutions," he explains. "If we ask them to change, they would not start the project at all." As the companies gain confidence in using the technology, it will be interesting to see the extent to which they choose to employ lean and Six Sigma principles and tools in conjunction with RFID to further enhance their processes and stay competitive, and whether cultural differences will affect the benefits of the potential synergies.

One similarity that the AUTOM MES implementations have had with Western RFID deployments is that they benefited from being process-driven to solve significant operational problems, rather than being merely an IT department-driven technology project. That is not to say that the technology is not important—the technical architecture of the AUTOM MES helps make possible ease of use that is crucial to adoption and more effective deployments. Although the AUTOM MES has been well received, improvements are currently being developed to further reduce the "three high problems" during the coming years.

Kurt Hozak is an assistant professor of operations management at Coastal Carolina University's E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration, and a technology and operations management consultant.