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What You Need to Know About RFID Tool-Tracking Systems

Across industries—from automotive and aerospace production to oil and gas exploration and even the leasing of tools to customers—it's critical to have the right tool in the right place at the right time. Manufacturers that can't identify and locate tools efficiently often experience delays in production or, worse, total work stoppages.
By Justin Patton
Oct 01, 2008—Until recently, tool-tracking systems, such as identifying tools with human-readable markings or bar codes, relied on the diligence of the worker, so they were prone to breakdowns. Radio frequency identification brings new efficiencies to tool-tracking systems. These systems are fully automated, so they eliminate human errors and free up workers to perform their primary job of putting things together without worrying about the tools needed to perform the job.

In general, all RFID tool-tracking systems need to be able to:

• Unambiguously identify a tool
• Locate a particular tool on demand
• Track the movement of a tool within a facility and at entry and exit points
• Associate all tools that are part of a set needed to execute a particular job
• Automatically transmit the movements of tools to a system of record
• Record that a tool has been issued to or is in the custody of a particular employee­­

The University of Arkansas' RFID Research Center has found that the right systems to automatically identify and locate tools can improve efficiencies, saving manufacturers time and money.
RFID vendors take different approaches to fulfilling these requirements. The RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas has had hands-on experience with all of the RFID tool-tracking systems we look at in this article, and has helped several companies investigate and deploy them—from large vehicle manufacturers to small repair facilities. We've found that there's no single "right" solution.

One company, for example, might need to deploy its system in a facility where there's a lot of interference from metal racks and storage bins, while another might want to integrate tool tracking as part of an asset-management system. Other variables include the precision with which the tools need to be located, the openness of the manufacturing space and the potential return on investment—whether you need to locate a $1,000 specialized drill bit or a $50 ladder.

It's important to note that RFID tool tracking is a developing application, and RFID vendors are adding new technologies to their systems to make them flexible. For instance, some manufacturers may need to track tools in large, open spaces as well as in small, confined areas. Many of the systems have been available for less than a year, and while some have been deployed, others are still in the pilot phase. Based on our experience, here's a guide to help you decide which technology will work best in your manufacturing environment.
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