Metro Rio Tracks Tool Use, Maintenance with RFID

Published: December 7, 2023

The rail company’s tool tracking solution brings a view into what tools are being borrowed and ensuring they are maintained on time.

Rapid transit network Metrô Rio has gained a digital view into the location and maintenance history of some of its tools with an RFID-based solution provided by RFID Brasil.

The automation system for tool management consists of a smart locker equipped with UHF RFID reader and antennas, RFID tags on tools, and software that manages the data. Metrô Rio can use the solution to identify whether goods are in the cabinet, when they’re checked out or returned, and their maintenance history.

With the solution, the transit company that serves the city of Rio de Janeiro, intends to prevent losses and reduce labor costs. The solution went live in May with a single maintenance center cabinet, with plans to expand the intelligent tool cabinet system.

Providing 228.2 Million Rides

Metrô Rio is the second highest volume metro system in Brazil (behind only the Sao Paulo Metrô), with 41 stations and 58 kilometers (36 miles) of rail lines. Annually it serves a ridership of 228.2 million.

Typically, 52 trains are running on the mainline during rush hours, with a total of 312 cars. The transit service inspects and maintains at least 12 of these trains, and 72 cars, at any given time, at its maintenance center in Rio.

Managing rail cars can be highly time-consuming when workers have to walk the rails to identify and locate cars, identify their requirements, route the car to the proper maintenance location, and find tools needed to conduct their work. Sometimes tools might have been borrowed by other workers and can’t be located.

The organization was looking for a way to efficiently track, identify, and streamline the search for shared equipment among its maintenance center teams, says Wei Cheng, Metro Rio’s scheduled services coordinator.

The Intelligent Cabinet

Metrô Rio went to technology company RFID Brasil for a solution. The team wanted to create an intelligent cabinet to track when tools came and went, and who had them, recalls Glaucia Gomes, RFID Brasil’s RFID and IoT business development specialist. The goal was to build a solution that would help both maintenance supervisors and coordinators optimize their maintenance processes.

RFID Brasil and Metrô Rio applied RFID tags to tools, building a cabinet with a single RFID reader and an array of antennas. On the front of the cabinet there’s a touchscreen, an RFID card reader and a camera to record transactions. RFID Brasil provides software on the cabinet’s server to control and track the usage of the tools, as well as cloud-based software and app.

To use the cabinet, each worker has their own HF 13.56 MHz RFID-enabled ID card, compliant with ISO 15693. First, they go to the cabinet and their card is scanned. The software stores data including which individuals are granted access to the tools. If the individual is authorized, the cabinet door unlocks.  The touch screen displays what tools are available in the cabinet. It also displays those that have already been checked out, and by whom.

Cabinet Protocol

The software stores data specific to authorization and requirements for tools, including how long an individual is permitted to keep specific tools, and what tools require calibration and therefore cannot be used until that calibration or repair is conducted.

Once the user has been approved, and identifies the tools they want, they simply take the tools they need, close the door and walk away.

The tagged items are then no longer read by the cabinet reader, and the data is sent to the backend software via a cabled connection or 4G network, along with camera video.

Camera for Redundancy

The camera data is used for redundancy when needed to confirm the identity of the worker who accessed the tools. The backend software links those missing tagged tools with the individual who accessed the cabinet.

Data can be viewed by managers in real time, while they can view historical data about tools use, by which employees. If a tool has not been returned by an expected time or date, managers can receive an alert.

“We wanted the cabinet to act as a hub,” says Cheng. “The principal idea is to make small hubs that make sense for each maintenance point,” such as creating one hub for air conditioning unit repair tools.

Innovating to Ensure Best Tag Reads

Some innovation and modifications were needed to build a solution that provided accurate and reliable data, Cheng says. The team tested numerous tags as well as methods for attaching those tags in such a way that they could be read on shelves in any position and would remain on the tools in challenging environments. Metrô Rio selected HID Global’s Acura RFID tag a plastic enclosure.

Although the team considered including antennas at each shelf, in rubber mats, says Cheng, “we wanted maximum use of space,” for tools.  And, he added that for busy maintenance workers, “it’s not important for them to know what shelf it’s on.”

In fact, he says, being able to put the tagged tool back, on any shelf, and be assured it is recognized by the Impinj reader, was the key priority for workers.

“These guys are moving fast,” and don’t have time to select proper shelves for each tool as they are put away, he points out.

Gaining Analytics About Tool Use

The software features analytics designed for the solution, including a chart that shows which items are being used more frequently and which are not, to help understand what inventory is needed when it comes to tools.

“Before having this cabinet we didn’t know how many tools we had and were always purchasing buying new tools that might not have been necessary,” says Cheng.

Now, by identifying exactly what tools are available, the transit company doesn’t not need to buy redundant assets.

The system helps reduce losses by holding workers accountable for each tool they use. The goal is not to punish those who fail to return a tool, but to educate them, and ensure that a missing tool can be located.

“Everybody fails sometimes, no one is perfect,” Cheng says. If a tool is not returned, management can simply use the software to identify who had it, and go to them. “We can just talk to the employee telling him to be more careful next time.” He adds that workers are paying closer attention to where the tools are, and ensuring they return to the cabinet.

Built to Accommodate Exceptions

There are exceptions, however, when returning a tool to the cabinet can be bypassed, to save time. If workers swap a tool, when they are not near the cabinet, they can use their phones to access the RFID Brasil software on the server to update details about that tool and who has been given custody. They can also sign into the system app.

Metrô Rio has calculated its return on investment (ROI) based on the reduced loss, and labor costs.

“We expect the payback time is three to four years and that is a very conservative estimate,” says Cheng.

In the future, the company expects to tag more items, including tools for other departments in the company and for critical items such as warehouse keys which are often lost when an individual accidentally takes them home at the end of the day.

Key Takeaways:
  • Metrô Rio has completed a successful pilot of an RFID enabled cabinet solution to automate the tracking of tools used to repair rail cars.
  • Since the system went live, the company sees reduction in labor time, loss of assets, and fewer purchases of redundant tools.