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How to Link PLCs and RFID

Integrating the two technologies can be either relatively straightforward, or complicated and costly. Here's what you need to know to design a successful solution.
By Jill Gambon
Apr 28, 2008—Businesses looking to add RFID technology to their automated factories or other industrial environments have a long list of considerations, including process changes and operational impact, as well as myriad technology choices. One key issue that can prove particularly challenging is the integration of the RFID system with the networks controlling the factory-floor processes and operations.

In such facilities, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) run the automation systems that operate assembly lines and other processes. With the introduction of RFID, it's critical to link tag data to the PLCs, because the tags can trigger a variety of actions. For instance, they can determine which production line a pallet or case should be routed to, or set off alarms to segregate defective parts or products. Tag-read data can also be integrated into manufacturing execution systems (MES) to streamline production and boost efficiencies.

Some RFID professionals maintain that linking an RFID system with PLCs can be relatively straightforward, depending on the technology used and the goals of the project. Still others claim designing a solution to achieve such integration can be complicated—and costly. There is no playbook to follow, because every deployment is different, depending on the systems already in place, the technology selected and the broader integration goals.

That said, here are some basic issues to address—and several questions to ask—that can help companies plan and execute a successful integration of their RFID system with their control infrastructure.

1. Identify your goals. A first step in the integration process is to define what the RFID system needs to accomplish, says Fred Mapp, CEO of Quality Service Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., consultancy specializing in advising businesses on aligning IT strategies with business goals. "If I'm the CIO," he says, "I want the system to fit where we are taking the business."

A company, Mapp explains, must figure out how the data from the RFID tag reads will be used, how much of that information needs to be stored, who will access it and how it will impact the organization's business processes. Businesses may also choose to integrate the tag data into MES systems to trace parts or products, as well as to increase visibility into product availability. The level of data integration, he says, will determine the project parameters.

Dean Frew, CEO of Xterprise, an RFID applications provider and systems integrator based in Carrollon, Texas, agrees that business goals will define how a particular project takes shape. "First," he says, "you have to do an assessment of the business objectives." Goals such as improved product tracking will impact the project's functional requirements. Those goals may define the complexity of the integration project if, for instance, a control network is not already integrated with a company's business intelligence or manufacturing systems. Once the overarching business objectives are mapped out, Frew notes, plans for integrating can evolve, "given the constraints of what's already in place."
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