Radio tags track stillages

A scheme to electronically tag stillages, the metal cages used to transport components, could save manufacturers millions of pounds in lost equipment and lost production by preventing them going missing.

Researchers at the University of Warwick‘s Warwick Manufacturing Group are working with Ford’s Premier Automotive Group to use Radio Frequency Identity Tags (RFID) tags to track stillages. The savings that can be gained by this technology are enormous – each missing stillage costs hundreds of pounds but more costly is the loss in production triggered by the hold ups caused by not having a stillage full of key components in the right place at the right time.

The component suppliers are also subject to unnecessary and unwarranted costs as they are forced to change production runs to accommodate the lack of stillages in a loop. When the situation reaches a critical point, substantial costs are incurred sourcing alternative packaging and emergency transport to ensure the car line is not held waiting for the parts to arrive.

A typical car manufacturing process can have 300 stillages in a loop for each component and 350 components on average per group of cars, meaning that there can be over 100,000 stillages in circulation servicing the production of just one group of cars in one factory. These huge numbers alone makes the management of that equipment a challenge but that challenge is compounded by the not uncommon problem of the misplacement of stillages.

Over 7 years a car manufacturer can expect to lose around 20% of its stillages. Some are believed to somehow end up being sold for scrap metal before the end of their useful life – others seem to find their way into the supply chains of other products. And some are just abandoned in the corner of an unrelated manufacturing plant.

By electronically tracking each stillage substantial savings can be made and relationships between supplier and manufacturer can be considerably enhanced as the system eliminates many of the disputes common between supplier and the manufacturer as to the current location of stillages.

If the current pilot project proves successful, the researchers aim to explore the possibility of developing intelligent pallets in which the RFID tag also carries information on the number and type of components within each stillage at any one time. One benefit would be the synchronisation of issuing improved scheduling information to suppliers with the knowledge the right number and type of pallet will be available.