Marks of progress

As manufacturing processes grow in speed and complexity, the amount of information associated with each product and the need to access that information quickly on the line increases. In the automotive industry, manufacturers are starting to make the production process directly responsive to orders. This means that details such as specified customer options need to […]

As manufacturing processes grow in speed and complexity, the amount of information associated with each product and the need to access that information quickly on the line increases.

In the automotive industry, manufacturers are starting to make the production process directly responsive to orders. This means that details such as specified customer options need to be easily accessible locally, rather than from a centralised computer database.

Recent developments in intelligent tagging and 2D laser marking are making it possible to record and label information about components or products, which can be used throughout the manufacturing and distribution supply chain. This is allowing companies such as Black & Decker, Lucas and Ford to monitor the movement and assembly of products while on the line, rather than using a remote ERP database or having to rely on inaccurate manual data entry.

Information recorded may include date and location of manufacture, environmental information, assembly or test details and the distribution destination.

The new breed of intelligent product information (IPI) systems is, in places, usurping the bar code which can only carry limited product identification information and is often not robust enough for the industrial environment. Whereas a bar code, when scanned, indicates product details stored in a computer database, more intelligent systems store the information on the tag itself.

IPI systems include radio frequency identity (RFID) tags, which can handle large quantities of read/write data about an item. RFID tags can be either attached directly to the product, or to pallets containing components. They are more secure than a bar code and can be buried in non-metallic items and scanned without being visible.

The falling price of RFID is behind the development of IPI systems. A year ago, they cost £30 or more; BTG’s Supertag, which is due for launch next year, will cost only 20p. At the Scantech show in Paris this month, Texas Instruments and French maker Gemplus introduced low-cost smart logistics labels. Texas’s ultra-thin Tag-it and Gemplus’s addition to the Gemwave RFID range could revolutionise the parcels industry. They have the potential to improve inventory tracking and enhance supply chain logistics in markets previously considered uneconomic for radio tags.

While intelligent tagging in the factory is so far limited to a handful of companies mostly car and computer makers and leading white goods assemblers as tags get cheaper, the practice will become more prevalent. Pilot intelligent tagging programmes are under way in the supermarket sector by Sainsbury’s, for baggage handling by the BAA and IATA, and in parcel distribution by Federal Express, UPA and others.

‘If these applications are successful, they could signal an explosion in the use of intelligent tagging,’ says Jeremy Holland, who leads the intelligent product information initiative at the London-based Centre for the Exploitation of Science and Technology (Cest).

Cest recently launched its third IPI-applications development consortium, which includes GEC, Dera and BT. The aim is to stimulate interest in IPI systems and replace labour-intensive manual data entry operations, which are slow and prone to errors. Studies suggest that IPI offers more than 10,000 times greater accuracy than manual entry.

Cest estimates that the European market for IPI products, including bar-code readers, is more than $4bn and growing at over 15% a year. Chief executive Peter Hewkin says: ‘There is a lot of fragmentation in the technologies and market approaches. But new RFID technologies are resulting in economies of scale for tag producers which would have been unimaginable a few years ago, and offer leaps in functionality.’

Cest aims to encourage shared costs and risks across sectors, and to promote standards which will help IPI become more widely applicable.

‘There will always be a trade-off between centralised and distributed data,’ says Hewkin. ‘The distributed philosophy comes to the fore where there are very small batches and fast delivery, especially when products are being delivered to a large number of component suppliers who are not necessarily in the main organisation or have access to an electronic data interchange system. But I am not hung up on the idea of IPI always needing a silicon chip: humble bar codes or physical marks also work well.’

Tags can compensate for variations in the manufacturing process. A 2D code laser-marked on the side of LucasVarity diesel injectors made for Ford contains precise dimensional and performance details. These are read on to an intelligent tag on the Ford diesel engine assembly lines and are used to configure each engine management system optimally. The tagged information reduces the need for the component supplier to produce to an ever higher specification, as the system can be configured to compensate at the manufacturer’s plant.

According to Garry Provis, a product manager at Siemens, whose 32 kilobyte Moby-I tag is used by GM, VW and BMW: ‘The use of intelligent tags is branching out from large industrial users like the automotive industry into other areas. Zanussi, for example, tracks washing machines around its plants, and Zeiss monitors glasses manufacture.’