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Swiss Manufacturer Adopts RFID to Stay Competitive

Sekisui Alveo, which manufactures foam products, uses the technology to improve inventory visibility and productivity.
By Samuel Greengard
Oct 05, 2014

Sekisui Alveo AG, a leading manufacturer of high-performance polyolefin foam materials used in a variety of industries—including automotive, construction and consumer goods—is always on the lookout for ways in which to boost internal efficiency and improve processes. "We recognize a need to position the company for productivity gains," says Markus Bider, the CFO of the Lucerne, Switzerland-based company, which operates factories and other facilities in Wales, the Netherlands and Germany, with reported annual revenues of approximately €120 million ($152 million). "We want to stay competitive in the marketplace."

In 2010, the company found that its logistics processes were lagging and overall productivity was waning. Paper-based systems that required printed instructions along with manual tabulation had become prohibitively expensive and a nightmare to manage, Bider says. What's more, a lack of data and poor automation made it increasingly difficult to operate the business without gaps, glitches and delays. "We were experiencing increased cycle times, low stock accuracy and lost time related to counting and searching for materials," he explains. Making matters worse, the firm's logistics group could not accommodate an increase in production volume without hiring more personnel and incurring additional costs.

Fixed RFID portal readers track each roll as forklift operators move them to and from the foaming production hall and the fabrication hall.
To resolve these issue, Sekisui Alveo launched its Global Plants Logistics (GPL) project in 2011. The company's goal was to use radio frequency identification technology to automate the tracking and tracing of products within the plants, and to transition to real-time inventory visibility. The solution—which the firm developed in conjunction with Netherlands-based consulting and integration company Mieloo & Alexander Business Integrators—underwent extensive testing and development before it was taken live at Sekisui Alveo's facilities between June 2013 and April 2014.

Today, as the company produces finished foam products, the goods are RFID-tagged and tracked throughout the facilities. This makes it possible to view inventory levels at any given moment, as well as locate specific stock and automate processes that were previously handled manually. The initiative has led to more concise workflows and business processes, which are now aligned among the plants.

A Flexible Solution
In 2012, Sekisui Alveo hired Mieloo & Alexander to serve as the systems integrator and prime contractor for the RFID implementation. To refine the business case and design the solution, Sekisui Alveo set up a cross-functional team with representatives from the company's production, logistics and IT departments. When it was time to roll out the solution, Sekisui Alveo established a steering committee at each plant—including the chief production officer, the chief financial officer, and various production managers and engineering experts—to examine specific design and process issues, including the physical layout and business case.

At Sekisui Alveo, materials move through as many as four production steps on the way to becoming finished products: extrusion, irradiation cross-linking, foaming and fabrication. The latter step includes a large variety of treatments to produce the finished products, including surface treatments, cutting, laminating and producing boards. The GPL system uses bar codes and RFID to track work-in-process (WIP) from the foaming step to a finished state. The solution is not used to track raw materials and WIP after the extrusion and cross-linking steps are completed.

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