RFID Boosts Safety and Efficiency at UTC Climate, Controls and Security

By Claire Swedberg

At RFID Journal LIVE! 2013, the materials manager at the company—which manufactures Carrier air-conditioners—described the process of identifying and implementing a radio frequency identification system at its Tennessee plant.

United Technologies' Corp.'s UTC Climate, Controls and Security (CCS) division, which manufactures Carrier heating and cooling equipment, has increased productivity by 30 percent, reduced errors by 80 to 90 percent, and improved safety, thanks to its use of EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to track components as they are assembled and then shipped. Balaji Suresh, CCS' materials manager at Carrier, described the deployment today at the RFID Journal LIVE! 2013 conference and exhibition, taking place this week in Orlando, Fla.

CCS provides heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration systems, as well as building controls and automation solutions for the residential market. The company's plant in Collierville, Tenn., assembles and ships its products in high volume, typically shipping a new unit every five seconds. By deploying RFID, the firm hoped to track component assembly, and to then monitor the shipment of finished goods, in order to improve the safety, quality and efficiency of its trailer-loading process, streamline assembly-line processes and reduce errors related to attaching the wrong components, which can lead to downstream re-working or customer dissatisfaction.

CCS' Balaji Suresh

The company's 900,000-square-foot plant employs approximately 1,300 workers, and was named by IndustryWeek as one of the United States' 10 best manufacturing plants in 2012. Because of the firm's very fast-paced environment, Suresh explained, a delay of even five seconds could result in the loss of one unit— which, he noted, impacts operating costs. "It was extremely important that an [RFID] solution we chose be reliable enough so that even a five-second delay would not occur," he told attendees.

The company first began seeking an RFID solution in 2007, Suresh explained, but at that time, the technology's cost was too high. The company revisited the solution in 2009, and an RFID system was included in the budget for 2010.

CCS selected a solution from S3Edge, with the goal of not interfering with existing manufacturing operations. The company tried several fixed readers, inviting hardware businesses to test their technology on the floor in order to measure performance within a manufacturing environment. According to Suresh, the best performance was achieved by Impinj Speedway Revolution readers, which the company then selected for the installations. It also deployed Motorola handheld readers; Zebra Technologies RFID label printer-encoders; Smartrac ShortDipole wet inlays, with built-in Impinj Monza 5 chips; WS Packaging converted labels; and Xerafy rugged tags.

The company then conducted a trial of the technology through a single production run, compared the RFID solution's results against those of the legacy bar-code system, and discovered that no units were missed, while visibility was improved by RFID's use. Following the trial, the company selected Xerafy's metal-mount tags for attachment to metal carts that transport components. CCS also determined the best position for installing reader antennas, as well as optimal dock-door reader power settings for full-scale production volumes. As each tag was read throughout the manufacturing and shipping process, software interpreted read data and integrated that information with the company's manufacturing execution system (MES). The solution also utilizes Microsoft BizTalk as RFID middleware for reader management.

RFID readers, each equipped with two antennas, were installed at each of the plant's assembly lines, as well as at the shipping dock doors. Staff members were provided with handheld interrogators for troubleshooting purposes.

Once the tagged units leave the assembly line, a forklift picks up a load of units and transports them to the shipping area. Readers mounted above the dock doors read the forklift's tag, as well as those of the components, and forwards that data to the company's back-end software. The forklift driver views the read results (indicating which goods his or her vehicle is carrying) on a tablet computer, along with confirmation if the units meet all shipping criteria.

Personnel utilize the handheld readers to search for missing items, or to perform any additional servicing on a particular item. They can also read a unit's bar code, in the event that an RFID tag is damaged and cannot be read.

The system was taken live in September 2011, Suresh reported, and the company expects a return on its investment in less than two years.

According to Suresh, CCS' goals were to improve safety and efficiency during shipping, mistake-proof component assembly, streamline some assembly processes and build infrastructure for future capability. The solution, he noted, has accomplished of all these goals.

To date, Suresh reported, there has been significant hazard reduction, since individuals within the shipping area no longer need to manually check items being shipped at high-traffic areas, such as dock doors. What's more, the incidence of assembly errors has also been decreased, since the system identifies when an incorrect component is being used at the time that the mistake occurs.

In the future, Suresh said he hopes to further utilize the RFID data to find ways in which to improve efficiency and productivity.