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Volvo's Global RFID Initiative

The auto manufacturer shifts production into a higher gear, driving improvements and cost savings.
By Samuel Greengard
Jul 24, 2016

To meet the demands and complexities of global manufacturing, Volvo Car Group (Volvo Personvagnar) has turned to radio frequency identification technology to drive innovation and bottom-line results. The Swedish automotive manufacturer has relied on RFID in one form or another since the late 1990s, and it has widely adopted the technology for niche projects. Now, the company has embarked on a smart manufacturing initiative designed to automate production lines, boost output and lower costs at its plants in Sweden, Belgium and China.

The project, which launched in 2008 and has since evolved through 18 versions, ties together dozens of previously discreet technologies, processes and systems. It took roughly six years to develop the current solution, says Yvan Jacquet, Volvo Car Group's data communications and RFID concept project manager. A key piece of the project was the ability to use one permanent RFID tag throughout the entire manufacturing process. The company also had to contend with a manufacturing environment that introduces read challenges revolving around interferences and reflections from metal. In addition, developing the software to operate and manage the system required significant time and effort. "There were many different technologies and systems that had to work together seamlessly," Jacquet says.

RFID makes it possible for Volvo to more easily assemble different vehicle models on the same production line.
RFID now makes it possible for Volvo to more easily assemble different vehicle models on the same production line—including the V40, XC60 and S60 in Belgium and the V60, V70, S90, V90 and XC90 in Sweden—while managing myriad variations and details throughout a manufacturing process that spans numerous stations, including welding, painting and assembly. "It is a complicated manufacturing environment that requires a very high level of precision and accuracy," Jacquet says.

Steering Toward Automation
When Volvo began using RFID nearly 20 years ago, the technology was clearly in its infancy. At the time, the company relied on microwave technology operating at 2.45 GHz to manage specific processes in its welding and paint shops. But due to tag limitations—including how much data could be stored on them and their inability to withstand harsh environmental conditions—it was impossible to use the tags more comprehensively and to integrate these systems into the general manufacturing process, Jacquet says. "There were clear benefits to using the technology," he states, "but as time went on, the RFID systems couldn't deliver the bigger benefits that were possible."

In fact, tag destruction was a major issue for Volvo. In the paint shop, for example, "We were at the limit of performance for thermal temperature," Jacquet recalls. As a result, "In the final assembly shop, we have used a cheaper technology with a reusable infrared tag on the roof of the car." Further complicating matters, plants in Göteborg, Sweden, and Ghent, Belgium, had different systems in place. "Overall, we had about 10 different RFID systems across the facilities," he says. Then, in 2004, the company that supplied the tags opted to discontinue production because the cost of manufacturing was too high. "We were paying about €400 per tag," he adds. "They were very expensive tags. We were facing a nightmare in regard to changing the entire system, since it was based on a single vendor solution. It was time to take an entirely different approach and build an entirely new RFID framework."

Jacquet initiated a project called New Generation of Identification System (NGIDS). The company set several goals—first and foremost, to have a single RFID framework that would span the company and its manufacturing facilities. "We wanted to have a complete global strategy for the Volvo Group," he explains. Volvo also wanted to use only one tag per car—each with a unique reference number—across the entire manufacturing process. This would eliminate conflicts related to multiple tag reads and streamline RFID management. Moreover, the system would need to tie into production-steering systems and provide the highly flexible and global data handling that facilities in different countries required.

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