RFID Helps Manage Product Inspections

By Beth Bacheldor

PeakWorks, a provider of safety harnesses, is using radio frequency identification to better manage the process of inspecting equipment critical to protecting employees working at heights.

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PeakWorks, a Canadian provider of fall protection equipment, training and inspection services, has begun adding high-frequency (HF) RFID tags to all of its products, ranging from harnesses to anchors and lanyards. The RFID tags will be utilized to keep tabs on the products from manufacture to the point of sale and beyond, to help ensure these items are regularly inspected—as well as repaired or returned in the event of a recall.

The company, headquartered in Vaughan, Ontario, is employing an RFID system known as Field ID, provided by N4 Systems in Toronto. The Field ID system includes Psion Teklogix Workabout Pro G2 handheld mobile computers with 13.56 MHz RFID interrogators, HF tags complying with the ISO 15693 protocol, Tracient Technologies handheld 13.56 MHz interrogators that plug into a desktop computer’s USB port, and secure, Web-enabled software hosted on servers at N4’s offices.

PeakWorks is adding the RFID tags into small, enclosed pockets on the harnesses and other products before they are shipped out to customers. For products too small for the pockets, or that are made of metal (such as anchors), the tags are attached via heavy-duty key chains.

Prior to shipping a product to a customer, a PeakWorks’ worker employs the Tracient reader to capture the tag’s unique ID number, and to associate it with such information as the customer’s name, the item’s date of manufacture, the date shipped, an inspection schedule, the type of inspection the product requires and any other information mandated by regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), as well as such Canadian agencies as the Ontario Ministry of Labor.

“With this, we close the loop of due diligence,” says Gabriele Fusco, president of PeakWorks. Before implementing RFID, the company used paper and pencil to track inspections on the products it sells—which it performs for its customers as part of a value-added service. Inspectors would contact a customer, schedule a time to physically inspect the products, carry out the inspection and record results on paper, then return to the office to issue a certificate (if the equipment passed) and send it to the customer.

Now, inspectors can employ the handheld mobile computers to identify the product, and to document the inspection and results. The mobile computer can transmit this information back to N4’s servers via a wireless connection to the Internet. If the site lacks Internet connectivity, the mobile computer can be placed in a docking station once the inspectors return to N4’s offices. Customers can then automatically access, via the Web, the results of their inspections, along with electronic versions of the certificates.

Not only does the RFID system automate the inspection process, it also helps PeakWorks and its customers track when inspections are necessary. This is because all of the information regarding each product is centrally stored on servers and can thus be viewed by customers.

“This really hits on making sure each product is properly tuned,” Fusco says. “A lot of customers lack that due diligence [to make sure products are properly inspected or repaired]. But with many of our products—which can be like clothing—if you catch them on something, they can get snagged, and that can damage the fibers of the harness.” Even a small snag, he says, could compromise the harness’ performance and, therefore, safety. As such, regular inspections are vital.

Additionally, before inspectors head out to the field to conduct inspections, they can download the customer data onto the mobile computers so they know what needs to be inspected, and which types of inspections are necessary. And when they reach a site, they can easily determine, by scanning the RFID tags, if the products they are inspecting are the correct items.

“Typically, when people are doing inspections, the first step is product identification,” says Somen Mondal, N4 Systems’ CEO. “Without that, the inspection is meaningless, like doing an inspection on a car without knowing the vehicle identification number. Putting RFID tags on products eases the identification process, and automates it.”

The RFID tags will also help PeakWorks in the event of a product recall. “From a manufacturer’s perspective,” Fusco states, “if we have to do recall or perform repairs, the Field ID database allows us to easily find customers, and which products they have.”

PeakWorks has begun tagging products, and is currently placing tags on approximately 5,000 products each month. By March 2009, Fusco expects the company to be affixing tags to about 10,000 items monthly. The inspection service using the RFID system will be provided to customers as a premium offering.

In February of this year, Hercules SLR began employing N4’s Field ID system (see Equipment Inspectors Find Safety in RFID). Last year, hoist ring manufacturer Jergens began utilizing the N4 system for tracking the life cycle of its crane links (see Hoist-Ring Manufacturer Using RFID to Carry Life-Cycle Data). And in 2006, Unirope began employing a similar system to trace its chain and synthetic slings (see Unirope RFID-Enables Inspections for Industrial Slings).