Visiting the Future of Manufacturing

An up-close look at the RFID system Hewlett-Packard has installed at its assembly plant in Brazil.
Published: October 26, 2007

After Hewlett-Packard (HP) held its RFID Symposium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last week (see HP Takes the Lead and HP’s Lab in Brazl), it invited most attendees to tour its RFID-enabled manufacturing facility, located about an hour’s drive from the city. While most visitors viewed the production lines from a catwalk above, I was fortunate to be taken right down onto the floor (hey, there are some privileges that come with being the editor of RFID Journal).

The Brazil facility was the first one chosen to be RFID-enabled because it is the only HP printer assembly facility that also has a packaging operation. Usually, the printers are made in one facility and then shipped to other countries to be packaged with a local language manual and other items. The Sao Paulo facility ships to locations in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, so the packaging is all done there.

We’ve already published an extensive case study on the deployment, so I won’t go into detail about how it all works (see Best RFID Implementation: Keeping Tabs on Printers), but HP is able to place a tag on inkjet printers at the start of the assembly process and track it through to the end, enabling the company to measure how long it takes to make each printer. More importantly, the printers can be tracked through to the warehouse.

Marcelo Pandini, manager of RFID and business development at HP Brazil, says products used to be lined up outside the warehouse area so they could be manually verified before being put away. “Now,” he says, “they wheel the pallets through a portal, and verification happens automatically.”

HP writes the results of test data to the tag on the printer housing. Thus, if a printer fails a test (or isn’t even tested) and somehow slips through the process, it can be stopped at quality control and other points.

As impressive as the current system is, it’s only the beginning. HP is already working on various improvements to the process that will enable the system to deliver more benefits. One possibility is tagging trays used to hold components being assembled. The trays all look similar, but different trays are used for different printers and stations. Better tracking of the trays would improve utilization and reduce the time people spend searching for the one they need.

An even more ambitious project would be to tag trays of parts and create a kanban system, in which parts could be delivered to the assembly line just in time. There are many opportunities for such a system—HP could identify employees at each station and track their productivity to determine, for example, whether a worker needed additional training or should be reassigned to a more suitable job.

In addition, HP has also created a prototype smart display case that would store inkjet printer cartridges and provide real-time information regarding the demand for each type of cartridge (see HP Unveils Prototype Smart Display Case). This smart-shelving system, which HP debuted at the RFID Symposium, should greatly improve the company’s inventory management process, allowing it to make sure a store never runs out of its cartridges, while enabling it to replenish based on demand.

The fact is, companies still don’t know what can be achieved with RFID technologies. “Supply chains are based on averages,” Pandini says. “If it takes an average of 30 minutes to make a printer, half of them are made in less than 30 minutes and half are made in more than 30 minutes. Why can’t they all be made in less than 30 minutes?”

The spirit of innovation currently going on at HP Brazil is vital. Having seen close up how the printers are assembled, I find it almost miraculous—a testament to human ingenuity and engineering genius. The RFID part of the plant is small compared to the overall efficiencies that already exist, which is probably why many managers don’t get too excited about RFID. But when you see how RFID technology can be used to help companies do what they do more efficiently, you realize that investing in supply-chain innovation is almost as important as investing in product innovation.