RFID-based Automotive Network Project Achieves Its Goals

By Rhea Wessel

Some project partners, including Bosch, plan to take the results of the RAN project into the operational phase.

The RFID-based Automotive Network (RAN), a three-year, federally funded research project focused on the use of radio frequency identification within Germany's automotive industry, came to a close this month. The partners announced that they met their goal of standardizing event-based data exchange across participating companies, using data repositories based on the Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) standard.

The RFID-based Automotive Network's partners also announced that they will continue to cooperate on various RFID projects from RAN. These projects will be taken into operation at several participating companies.

Bosch's Andreas Müller

The RAN project commenced on Jan. 1, 2010 (see Germany's RFID-based Automotive Network Gets Rolling), and was supported by the nation's Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology, to develop methods, approaches and standards for process controls within the automotive industry. The focus was on tagging containers and products with RFID, in order to enable every partner involved in automotive production or logistics to access the information it requires in real time, from a data repository known as Infobroker.

The participating car manufacturers included BMW, which deployed RFID to monitor containers as they moved between the automaker's facilities and suppliers along the production chain, and Daimler, which tagged production containers to track them between two countries. Daimler also installed real-time location system (RTLS) hardware and passive EPC tags across one of its factory's quality-assurance areas (see Daimler Sees Potential Benefits of Using RFID to Track Quality-Control).

The German government contributed €23 million ($30.3 million) to the research project. The overall budget totaled €46 million ($60.6 million), including the funding invested by the participants.

This month, at the project's closing meeting, partners promised to work together to build more RFID-based standards in the automotive industry via the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Odette International Ltd. and the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). Separately, VDA founded an RFID expert's circle that will work to integrate the RAN project's results into VDA's process recommendations, which are designed to lead to standards. VDA was not a partner in RAN, but observed the project, according to Matthias Kauffmann, a manager who supported RAN at the project office. Kauffmann works for the Ingenics technical consultancy, in Ulm.

The RAN project was a successful step toward standardizing the use of RFID in the automotive industry, Kauffmann says. "We achieved all of the things we wanted to achieve," he states.

For instance, Daimler, which was involved in three of the projects' seven use cases, successfully exchanged information with partners regarding the locations of tagged metal carriers for motors moving between two countries. The firm reported, at the RAN closing press conference, that it plans to continue testing the RFID-based tracking system. The goals of the use case were to gain transparency into the supply chain and to speed up material flow across borders, businesses and plants, in order to utilize fewer carriers in the long run.

RAN's Matthias Kaufmann

"The transparency that the data-exchange system provided will speed up the shipment of the carriers significantly, saving Daimler money," Kauffmann says. "We saw exactly where a motor was during transport. This was exactly what we wanted."

In another use case, project member Robert Bosch GmbH—which manufactures automotive components, industrial and building products, and consumer goods—demonstrated that the Infobroker repositories could be successfully linked at different companies.

"Tests of the functionality of the Infobroker prove that the concept works," Kauffmann states.

Some project partners announced their intent to take the RAN project's results into the operational phase. Bosch's board recently signed off on a multiyear project to expand the use of RFID to various production and logistics processes at numerous plants throughout Germany, after reviewing pilots conducted as part of RAN. Across the entire company, not just within Bosch's automotive component factories, Bosch already performs 2 million RFID reads a month, mostly through existing RFID-enabled kanban applications at 10 factories located worldwide.

The company's goal with the expansion is to enable new services for its customers, based on a larger repository of production and process data collected via radio frequency identification, says Andreas Müller, who leads Bosch's RFID efforts. Müller also serves as the head of the RAN use case at Bosch—a job he continues to perform even after RAN's official ending.

Bosch participated in RAN with a pilot involving a test of RFID on returnable transport items (RTIs) exchanged with one of its parts suppliers, as well as a test with automaker Opel. Together, Müller explains, the pilots showed that it will be possible to employ RFID to track which individual automotive parts end up in which vehicles, from supplier to original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Some steps of the applications have been moved into production, while others remain in the testing phase.

In cooperation with its parts supplier, Bosch tested the RFID-based replenishment of RTIs used in production. When an RTI must be replaced, a worker holds a kanban card inside a plastic sleeve (to which an RFID tag is attached) in front of a reader. The system generates a replenishment signal that is transferred to the supplier. The supplier then prints a new kanban card and places it within a plastic sleeve with an RFID tag attached. The kanban ID is linked in the computer system to the RFID tag's unique number.

A reusable plastic cover is used, the company explains, because the RTIs are managed as a pool, and tagging just for Bosch would be unrealistic. The supplier places the RFID-tagged kanban card on the containers, and then delivers them directly to Bosch's logistics area. RFID gates at Bosch detect that delivery, and the system is updated to indicate that the RTIs were received. "This process has the potential to speed up replenishment cycles, and to give real-time information about the actual stock levels," Müller says. "Once it is in production, stock levels of RTIs can be reduced. We are now working to launch the application with suppliers."

RFID Kanban With a Customer

As part of RAN, Bosch also expanded and upgraded an existing internal RFID-based kanban project (see Bosch Earns Fast ROI From RFID). It was originally implemented in July 2008 in Homburg, in the state of Saarland, to replenish parts used to manufacture common rail diesel fuel injectors.

The kanban application was not based on standards that would allow other automotive supply chain members to use it. As part of RAN, Bosch adapted the system for external partners, and then tested it in partnership with Opel.

"When we built the kanban application, the technology was all very new. Nobody really thought about enabling all members of the supply chain to use it," Müller recalls. "Now, as part of RAN, we have adapted the kanban application and taken part of it into operation with Opel."

For the expanded kanban application that began last year, Bosch sends pallets of containers holding common rail fuel injectors to Opel, with RFID-enabled kanban cards attached to the outer stretch-wrap.

The closed-loop application features Smartrac (formerly UPM RFID) Web passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags complying with the ISO 18000-6C standard. The kanban cards are made of paper, and an RFID tag is affixed to each card's back via an adhesive.

Bosch first interrogates the tags as they are moved via forklift through an RFID gate reader in Homburg. At various Bosch locations, in partnership with noFilis, the company is testing gate readers supplied by Impinj, Kathrein and Brooks Automation.

Upon receiving the pallet, Opel stores it within its warehouse until production time. At that point, a worker picks the parts and places the RFID-enabled kanban card on the stretch-wrap into an RFID-enabled mailbox, and the tag is then interrogated. The information is transmitted to the Bosch test repository in the data format defined by RAN: the EPCIS-based Automotive Business Vocabulary (ABV). The booking in the system tells Bosch to replenish the part, and the solution can also be used if the automaker needs to make a quick change to its production plan. This element of the application has already been rolled out, and currently remains in operation.

Bosch tested further methods for tracking the parts as part of the RAN project. The test included sending data about rails—another part of the common rail system—to Opel, instead of just to Bosch. RFID tags were placed on a protective cap on the rails, and were interrogated using handheld or gate readers at the end of Bosch's production line, as well as during packaging, when the product was loaded for transport at Bosch, when the parts were received at Opel and before assembly at Opel.

"We're working to develop this test more," Müller says.

In addition, Bosch is working to track individual parts used in OEM prototypes. "We will be able to tag prototypes, collect data about them and send information about the products based on the RAN standards and RAN platforms. We will be able to do this by early 2013," Müller states. "This will be one of our first applications in production that is enabled by the results of the RAN project." He adds, "Honestly, we've just started. We've got a long way to go. The potential is enormous."

Automakers have expressed interest in tracking at the part level, so that they can more easily conduct quality checks at the end of the production line. The automakers would be able to quickly determine if all parts have been mounted, as well as which custom-ordered parts were inside a vehicle, and that information could improve after-sales service, including maintenance.

Implementing RAN Results

With the RAN project completed, Bosch is now turning its attention to the details of single-product tagging within a production environment, based on the results of its RAN test case. Before individual parts can be tracked throughout production, Müller says, supply chain participants will need to build up their RFID infrastructure and also resolve some technical problems, including radio interference within a metal environment.

According to Müller, RAN was helpful in resolving some of the barriers making it difficult to operate RFID applications across businesses, such as deciding on a unique numbering system and determining how to share data from a platform. In addition to carrying out its RAN projects, Bosch also expanded its IT capacity; it is now capable of processing far more data.

"We had to change our IT infrastructure at Bosch to use RFID. It was a really important part of our work to roll out RFID," Müller explains. "If an employee is moving an RFID-tagged pallet through a gate, he must find out quickly if the tag was read properly. We had to increase the IT response time significantly."

Bosch now has an RFID read-response time of approximately two seconds, Müller says, including the processing time in the back-end systems. "It's much faster now," he reports, "and people are grateful and excited about this way of transmitting and receiving information, including information about stock levels."

Although the original RAN project is officially over, Müller stresses that there is still much work to be done. What's more, he says, prices for hardware and software must come down before RFID can be used widely across industries.

"Just imagine that for certain UHF RFID equipment, we now pay only a third of what we used to pay when we started the project," Müller adds.

Videos about the RAN project (in German only) can be viewed here.