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A Guide to RFID WIP Solutions for Discrete Manufacturers

Tracking work in process with radio frequency identification gives you real-time visibility into your processes and operations, which, in turn, saves time, improves quality and reduces costs. Here's what you need to know to choose a system that's right for your company.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jun 08, 2009—When you're making items composed of many parts, such as airplanes, automobiles, high-tech and consumer electronic devices, machinery, or medical equipment, it's essential—but difficult—to keep track of work in process (WIP). As many components and subsystems are assembled into individual products, discrete manufacturers need to ensure that the right parts make their way from warehouses to bins to assembly lines when they're needed.

It's also critical that the correct parts are diverted at the right time to the proper locations for painting, subassembly or other work before they can be brought together and incorporated into the final product. That's especially important if the manufacture of parts or subassemblies is outsourced to a supply-chain partner. Any delays or errors in these processes can cause a manufacturer to stop production to sort things out.



Many discrete manufacturers track WIP manually, using paper-based logs or entering data into computers or handheld devices—all methods that are prone to error, thanks to human fallibility. Even manufacturers that have automated the process using bar-code scanners find that workers often forget to scan some parts or circumvent the system for other reasons. Typically, managers aren't alerted to errors soon enough, so they cause problems down the line.

Manufacturers that have been using radio frequency identification to automatically track WIP in real time say that improved visibility can decrease mistakes and inefficiencies in operations, as well as lower costs and reduce inventory. Hewlett-Packard Brazil (HP Brazil), for instance, deployed an RFID WIP system in 2006 to analyze the processes used to manufacture and distribute printers. The company has been able to decrease downtime on its manufacturing lines, reduce its printer inventory in the supply chain and move closer to perfect order fulfillment.

Many workers at discrete manufacturing plants are highly skilled, and tracking WIP with RFID can help ensure they aren't being paid to search the floor for needed parts or sit idly when production is down. If there were a problem or delay, RFID WIP would alert managers in real time so they could, for example, run an extra shift or start up another line to get an order out on time—and, perhaps, avoid penalties for failing to meet a customer deadline. RFID WIP also can improve quality control by tracking each step to make sure it was carried out correctly.
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