Osram Sylvania Lightens Its Workload

By Claire Swedberg

The lightbulb maker uses I.D. Systems' RFID solution to automatically replenish the supply of materials on assembly lines, as well as track the activities of its forklifts.

Lighting product manufacturer Osram Sylvania is employing an RFID system to illuminate the activities of its forklifts, thereby ensuring drivers' efficiency and automating the stocking of incandescent lightbulb components at assembly lines as the bulbs are manufactured at the company's facility in St. Mary's, Pa.

In November 2008, Osram Sylvania went live with the system, which uses software and hardware from I.D. Systems and integrates with Sylvania's own assembly line computers and sensors. Thanks to this integration, computers that determine when the assembly line's supply of materials or components is low can send a replenishment order to the company's back-end system. The system then transmits instructions to the Vehicle Access Communication (VAC) device—an onboard computer that functions like an RFID tag—of the nearest available forklift, requesting that its driver fulfill the replenishment order. It also tracks the activities of each driver and forklift throughout their shifts.

To date, the system has saved the company 14 percent of its forklift labor, while also eliminating the need for extra supplies that were stored at the assembly lines to ensure the lines' operations were never delayed by the lack of components to build lightbulbs.

Until this system was installed, the movement of lightbulb components to the assembly areas was managed manually by forklift operators, says Rick Rupp, the company's DC and warehouse operations manager. Drivers of the 450,000-square-foot facility's seven forklifts were responsible for visually determining when new parts needed to be picked up from the warehouse and delivered to where they were needed. They maintained a "safety stock" that amounted to an extra storage of inventory at each assembly line, in order to ensure the materials could be easily accessed if supplies being used on that line ran out.

Sylvania assigned a design team to seek ways to improve productivity within the material handling of raw glass to the manufacturing lines. The team found that the workload per driver was not fully equal, Rupp says, because they were assigned zones or departments to support, and the requirements of those areas varied from hour to hour and day to day. The company also determined that by dispatching tasks throughout the plant, rather than to an assigned staff member, the workload could be equalized and material handling would be more productive.

Osram Sylvania wanted an improved system for managing replenishment, as well as greater visibility into the work being done by forklift operators. The resulting solution would require some creativity on the part of Sylvania's engineers. First, the company installed photo ID sensors at the point at which new components are stored to be used on the assembly line. The sensors detect when inventory levels have dropped too low, says Ann Florio, a Sylvania engineer, and sends an alert to the firm's programmable logic controller (PLC) —an assembly line computer receiving and processing data regarding the status of component inventory on the assembly floor.

When the sensors alert the PLC that an assembly line's supply of materials or components is running low, the PLC sends a message via a cabled Ethernet connection to its server, which then alerts a Line Asset Communication (LAC) unit, designed and provided by I.D. Systems for this solution. The LAC, which consists of an RFID transceiver, antenna and microprocessor, receives instructions that a supply of a specific material or component requires replenishment, then sends that message to one of seven Wireless Asset Managers (WAMs)—along with the assembly line's location—via a 902-928 MHz RFID signal. The WAM, in turn, sends the LAC data via a cabled connection to the Vehicle Management System (VMS) Vision software, provided by I.D. Systems and residing on the company's back-end database.

The software takes the instructions and then—through the triangulation of signals received by the WAMs from forklift VACs—determines the appropriate forklift driver, based on his location and current activity in the facility. All forklifts are equipped with VACs, which act as active RFID tags but include not only RFID transmission capabilities but also a built-in computer, a keypad, a display screen and an LED that blinks when an order is received. If the system determines that a specific forklift is located closest to the assembly line in need, and if the forklift is not otherwise occupied, a replenishment order is sent by the VMS to the WAM in that area, which then transmits that request to the forklift's VAC.

The VAC's LED blinks, and its display screen tells the driver what the order consists of, and where the supplies are needed. The driver then presses a prompt to either accept or decline the order. The status is sent back through the WAM to the back-end software, thus indicating whether the order is being addressed. If it has been declined, the software sends an order to the next, most appropriate driver. If that driver accepts the order, he picks up the ordered materials, delivers them to the appropriate assembly line location, and presses a prompt on the VAC, thus indicating the order has been completed. The software is then alerted that the driver is available for another pick up.

The VAC also has a built-in RFID interrogator that reads a forklift driver's HID Prox passive 125 kHz RFID identity card. Each driver carries such a card, encoded with a unique ID number linked to his name in Sylvania's back-end system. When the driver begins his shift, he presents his card to the VAC, which reads that ID number, then sends that information to the system, indicating he has begun his shift. From that point on, all tasks accomplished by that forklift, as well as all locations where the forklift travels, are recorded and can be accessed by Sylvania's management. After the driver has presented his ID card and been approved by the system, the VAC screen displays a series of questions which he must answer by pressing responses on the keypad, indicating the forklift's status, such as any damage to the vehicle, or any inoperable parts.

In the event of a collision, sensors on the forklift detect that incident, and the impact's location is stored with an alert in Sylvania's back-end system, enabling management to see when and where the collision occurred, as well as who was driving at the time.

The software can also compile data for future reports, such as the number of orders each forklift completes in a given amount of time, thereby helping the firm improve efficiency throughout the warehouse and assembly area.

"We talked about a lot of different ways to make this system work," says Ken Ehrman, I.D. Systems' president and COO. "And what Sylvania has come up with is an elegant system."

According to Rupp, the Sylvania team was able to improve productivity two months ahead of its projected schedule.