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Intelligent RFID technology closes gaps in the automotive supply chain

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The automotive industry takes advantage of tailor-made solutions for the automated identification of objects in virtually every process in the production and supply chain. Radio frequency identification or RFID has been used successfully for many years in practical applications to optimise the efficiency of processes in production. Based on these positive experiences, RFID technology is recommended for other applications in both upstream and downstream production processes.

Intelligent RFID systems such as those supplied by SICK also find use in applications involving inbound logistics between supplier and OEMs as well as in downstream distribution processes. RFID technology can close gaps in the supply chain.

The use of RFID technology by German OEMs in the automotive industry is already well advanced. Oliver Huther, RFID Business Development Manager at SICK Vertriebs-GmbH says they have been involved in thousands of UHF (ultra high frequency) RFID installations, providing support and assistance with their sensor knowhow. UHF RFID hardware by SICK is used by various OEMs to control their production processes. However, their systems continue to be used even after a vehicle has left the assembly line with RFID used in distribution to ensure that vehicles are loaded and shipped correctly to dealers all over the world. SICK’s RFID technology also makes it easier to locate vehicles that have been put into temporary storage, should rework need to be carried out.

Closing gaps at both ends of production

RFID has been used by some OEMs to close gaps between production and distribution not only in initial projects but also in applications that have already been implemented. According to Huther, they have observed a rapid increase in comparable activities on the other side of production such as in inbound processes. In these activities, the bar code dominates data exchange between the supplier and OEM. While RFID based on continuously advancing sensor technology is bringing benefits to the processes from supplier to manufacturer, its use is also set to increase at this point of the added-value chain in the automotive industry.

Interleaving of suppliers and OEMs

The more customised the assembly of the individual devices that make up a vehicle, the more customised is production. Andreas Behrens, Head of Marketing & Sales Barcode – RFID – Vision at SICK AG explains that making it easier for customers to configure their vehicles goes hand in hand with greater individualisation on the production line. Innovative technological solutions must combine with intelligent systems to assist companies in managing the increasing complexity. One of the possible technologies is RFID, as it is able to respond to the questions that arise from a production process, which is increasingly based on individual orders, right down to the individual parts. Suppliers and OEMs must brace themselves for these challenges, ideally by deploying systems that can be used across companies in all stages of the process and thereby increasing efficiency.

If a technology makes sense, it will be deployed

RFID technology can be found in an incredibly wide range of applications in the automotive industry. Huther explains that the possibilities it is opening up are too wide and varied to single out just one process. Today's OEMs and suppliers apply labels and markings to all manner of individual parts, assemblies, and load carriers. Instead of questioning whether an object is easy or difficult to label or mark, Huther believes one needs to ask how complexity can be reduced and transparency increased in processes. However, ultimately, customers always decide which identification technology is most likely to optimise their processes by weighing up costs against benefits. SICK offers advice to customers independent of the technology.

Flexibility in terms of the selection of technology to secure future viability

According to Huther, companies are often more interested in the solution that meets their requirements than they are in the technology. It is for this reason that identification solutions from SICK feature uniform connectivity, an identical user interface, and a uniform accessory concept. With SICK’s 4Dpro auto ID platform, it really doesn't matter if the identification data is acquired from an RFID read/write device or by scanning a 1D or 2D bar code. This independence in terms of the selection of technology also future-proofs the systems used. If a company uses a bar code scanner and in future, wishes to switch to an RFID read/write device to perform the same task, the acquisition devices can simply be swapped without needing to adapt the existing system. These capabilities mean that a reliable business case can be formulated in virtually any process with the appropriate technology.

Intelligent RFID solutions with Industry 4.0 potential

Supply chain integration in the automotive industry across companies offers extensive and as yet untapped potential for the use of RFID technology. According to Huther, if developments in the context of Industry 4.0 mean that more extensive automation and communication between all of the companies involved in a production process are the order of the day, there couldn’t be a better match than RFID. It's a technology that is suitable for universal use, allowing objects with labels to be detected both individually and in bulk, depending on requirements.

He points out that RFID adds value in all crucial processes, regardless of whether objects are to be detected as single parts or on load carriers in open cycles between suppliers and OEMs. SICK has invested heavily in research into the development of their read/write devices. SICK’s know-how is at work, for example, in systems that enable specific information to be assigned to a tag in a bulk read operation. Numerous factors that would have prevented the use of RFID just a few years ago are no longer an obstacle. When working with today's RFID hardware, reflection and false-positive reads are no longer a reason not to use RFID.

For Behrens, these challenges have already been overcome by the R&D department at SICK with read/write devices featuring intelligent functions integrated into comprehensive end-to-end systems with communication capabilities. Intelligent read/write devices by SICK are capable of generating high-resolution feedback data from measured data for transfer via an interface to appropriate software where it can then be visualised.

Feasibility studies and simulations

In order to provide OEMs and suppliers who are planning to use RFID technology with relevant information to assist their decision-making processes, SICK will thoroughly assess feasibility ahead of a project with their technology centres assisting them with feasibility studies under real conditions. Tests can also be set up on customer sites and simulations can supplement the analysis data obtained from the process.

According to Behrens, tests and simulations make it possible to produce reliable results so that a business case can be assessed. They also provide clear evidence of the added value that can be expected. Once a decision has been made to rollout the technology, SICK will provide support during commissioning and fine-tuning as well as for training the employees who will look after the system.

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