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MTU Examines RFID to Keep Its Production Line Rolling

The German manufacturer simulated an RFID-enabled kanban system to keep parts in stock and to introduce the technology to employees.
By Jonathan Collins
Jun 19, 2006MTU Aero Engines, based in Munich, Germany, manufactures and repairs military and civil aircraft jet engines worth millions of dollars. Manufacturing an engine requires thousands of parts, which the company categorizes into three broad groups—A, B and C—according to their value. It's essential for those parts to be available when needed, but insufficient supplies of C parts—the smallest and least expensive category, comprised of such items as screws and bolts—can occasionally bring the engine-component production line to a standstill.

"Sometimes, there is a problem with C-part availability," says Sebastian Resch, RFID project leader at MTU. "We have a big assembly shop using 450 C parts, and sometimes there can be interruptions caused by poor C-part availability."

Much of the problem stems from the inability to obtain precise, real-time information about inventory levels from the enterprise resource-planning manufacturing application used to manage inventory and automate ordering and delivery of replacement inventory. For example, if 10 C-part screws were typically needed for a particular assembly but a certain item required more because of its condition, the ERP system would still calculate that 10 screws were used to complete the job.

"The problem with the ERP system is that a lot of information isn't delivered to the system," says Resch. "The number of parts required for each engine is static and very specific, whereas the requirements may vary. In addition, there are issues of shrinkage and parts rejected due to quality." The company needed to provide real-world input about the number of C parts actually used, as compared to the number estimated by the ERP system. To that end, MTU established its first RFID project, utilizing radio frequency identification technology to enable production line workers to alert the manufacturing system whenever more specific C-parts are required.

MTU had another reason to use RFID to tackle this problem. The company hoped the successful use of RFID in one area would open the door to wider RFID deployments throughout its operations, thereby improving efficiency.

The RFID trial lasted several weeks and went hand-in-hand with the introduction of a kanban card (or pull) production system for just-in-time manufacturing. Kanban—named for the Japanese word meaning "visible record"—uses cards to signal the need for more items. MTU used a handful of test cards to alert the IT system when new parts were required so orders could be scheduled to ensure delivery before the existing production line inventory was exhausted.
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