Auto Maker Speeds Processes via RFID

MSM Solutions' replenishment system is providing an automotive factory with UHF RFID-based data regarding the parts moving onto the assembly floor and empty racks returning from the floor, thereby ensuring the manufacturing system has just-in-time access to those parts.
Published: May 1, 2019

An automotive manufacturer has deployed technology provided by MSM Solutions to boost the efficiency of its assembly process. The company, which has asked to remain unnamed, deployed the solution to gain visibility into the delivery of parts to the factory floor of its North American assembly site, and to thereby ensure operations are never delayed. Since the system was taken live two years ago, the firm reports that it has been able to identify inefficiencies in operations, gain visibility into its replenishment process and reduce the risk of delays.

MSM’s PortalTrack Replenishment System, designed for the automotive sector, ensures that manufacturing operations at automotive companies are never delayed, says Brett Wilkerson, MSM’s business-development manager. MSM Solutions is a Memphis, Tenn., company that sells RFID- and bar-code-based solutions. PortalTrack is a customizable system that has provided RFID-based visibility in logistics, manufacturing and other markets since 2005.

The automotive manufacturing plant that deployed the technology runs all day, every day, Wilkerson says. Making parts available as needed is critical to ensuring that workflow is never disrupted, so the company began using the PortalTrack Replenishment System to ensure that its components would flow onto the assembly floor efficiently. The company assembles cars at a steady rate—as many as 40 or 50 new vehicles every hour. “Inventory accuracy and cycle times are paramount in this application,” Wilkerson states. “RFID enables real-time visibility into these mission-critical operations.”

To ensure that parts are available for car assembly, the company fills racks with components, such as bumpers, that automated tugs transport from the storage area to the factory floor. In the past, personnel would scan bar codes as racks were loaded for transporting. Printed paperwork also traveled with the goods. However, that process was time-consuming and didn’t always happen. The manufacturer worked with MSM to create a customized solution, which was taken live in 2017. The software development and installation were accomplished within about 30 days, Wilkerson says.

With the PortalTrack system, a single reader is installed with two Times-7 antennas, ceiling-mounted at each end of a tunnel that runs between the warehouse and the assembly floor. An on-metal Xerafy RFID tag is attached to each of approximately 1,000 racks in which parts are loaded. The tag accomplishes reliable read ranges of up to 20 feet. In MSM’s cloud-based software, each tag ID is linked to data about the component stored in that rack.

The company needed the RFID system to operate independent of its own internal network. Therefore, the readers are networked with a private 4G LTE connection, allowing the system to communicate with MSM’s cloud solution. As the tug pulls the tagged racks to the assembly area, it passes through the two reader portals. At each of those sites, the system reads the racks’ unique RFID tag IDs, and that information is then sent via the private 4G LTE network, which links the data to MSM’s cloud-based software. The software can thereby determine which parts are being delivered for manufacturing.

As empty racks exit the manufacturing site, the RFID tags are read again, and that inventory is automatically deducted from the software. The software has preset levels indicating which parts must be available at the assembly site, and each part number has a target inventory level that must always be on hand in the manufacturing facility.

Several 60-inch monitors, mounted throughout the facility, display a dashboard of the inventory count so that individuals can watch the numbers. In the warehouse, for instance, workers who pick the parts for delivery to the assembly floor watch the monitors for status updates. Items that need to be replenished are listed there; the parts still available for use on the assembly floor appear in green, while those highlighted in red indicate replenishment is mission-critical.

The software also provides historical data that can help the company to improve its operations. For instance, it indicates how often components are used, based on the movement of racks, so that the firm can better understand which parts are used less or more frequently.

“The solution has enabled them to identify problems in their processes,” Wilkerson states. For instance, the company discovered that some components were being delivered to the assembly site outside of the expected channel, so there was no record of those items being received in assembly. The firm is now testing a supplier-based system to track totes that transport components between suppliers and the manufacturing facility.

Select tote suppliers for the auto maker are now beginning to tag their products. MSM Solutions is printing and encoding tags as the manufacturer orders them, and the supplier affixes the tags to the totes. The auto manufacturer will then be able to read those tags as the totes arrive filled with components from suppliers, and as they leave the facility empty.

For this project, the PortalTrack software will manage the printing, encoding, reading and analytics for an estimated 500,000 supplier totes that will be read at the automotive manufacturer’s receiving dock doors. Each tote is dedicated to a specific component, so that when a given part tag ID is red, the system will know which product is in the tote.

PortalTrack with customizable software has been available for 15 years, Wilkerson says, and has come with RFID technology since 2005. These days, he adds, the technology manages millions of transactions daily.