RFID in factory processes


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been championed by the packaging and logistics sectors but Udo Füger, Rockwell Automation, looks at the long-term benefits of integrating it into manufacturing

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has been championed by the packaging and logistics sectors but Udo Füger, Rockwell Automation, looks at the long-term benefits of integrating it into manufacturing.

Although RFID technology has been around for decades, many industries and companies (particularly those that deal in low-margin products) adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in recent years toward using RFID. And based on the minimalist approach taken by some companies to comply with Wal-Mart’s 2005 RFID mandate, it will be a while before the technology is widely adopted across the entire wholesale and retail sector.

But for pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, the time has clearly arrived for RFID technology. As the FDA has already noted, one of the most critical and timely uses for RFID is its ability to help detect and deter the growing use of counterfeit drugs, which will in turn mean a safer drug supply for consumers.

Yet, RFID also will be instrumental for pharmaceutical companies to more easily and rapidly conduct drug recalls, manage inventory, identify the faulty or diverted shipments, and even more readily comply with Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that requires public companies to report where their goods are located in the supply chain.

For years, manufacturers have invested in ways to link production with supply chain information not only to optimise inventory but also to improve production efficiency, flexibility, and responsiveness. Thanks to new-generation Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), companies now have a better way to obtain accurate, detailed, and timely information about their manufacturing operations and get most value out of their existing automation investments.

Yet, for a broad cross-section of manufacturers that have not made substantial investments in MES, RFID technology potentially provides a means to close some functional gaps, such as those related to tracking and genealogy and compliance management – all of which are issues of particular importance to pharmaceutical manufacturers.

For these manufacturers a combination of RFID investments and incremental, but functionally focused, MES applications can quickly and cost-effectively deliver functionality that parallels comprehensive MES solutions. For optimal RFID success, efforts to improve inventory visibility across the supply chain should be closely tied to a company’s control systems and execution processes driving production.

In order to justify the Return On Investment (ROI) of RFID technology, many manufacturers believe that the plant floor presents a vast, untapped opportunity for value creation and even strategic advantage, as RFID moves upstream from the supply chain and into the heart of manufacturing operations. By applying RFID technology incrementally across the plant floor, manufacturers can seamlessly integrate the new information captured by RFID, without disruption, into existing, proven, industrially hardened control, visualisation and information infrastructure, reducing the need for purchasing new infrastructure or investing in expensive, time consuming, and unproven IT integration projects.

Existing manufacturing execution systems (MES) and information solutions can then be updated to deliver robust and reliable real-time information flow to drive manufacturing execution in tune with the RFID-enabled supply chain.

1. Manufacturing information management:

By combining RFID with existing manufacturing information systems that drive both MES and ERP, manufacturers can create a much more potent information supply to drive production efficiencies and improve asset utilisation, production quality, and other production measures.

In order to deliver information from RFID upstream out to the supply chain and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and downstream into production and the MES, companies must convert their existing information infrastructure so that it co-exists with emerging EPC standards and IT, including software and application management technology, such as device brokers.

2. Manufacturing execution, quality control and compliance:

RFID has the potential to complement MES by providing new streams of real-time data that can support existing Lean and Six-Sigma programmes. Manufacturers can use the RFID information to ensure that the correct labour, machine, tooling, and components are available and ready to use at each processing step, thereby eliminating paperwork and reducing downtime. Furthermore, via RFID data, manufacturers can control, modify and even reconfigure their process steps in real time as inbound materials and assemblies move through manufacturing.

For example, a manufacturer could use RFID technology to tag raw materials with detailed specification information. If a formulation is incorrect, an alert would automatically be triggered. This can help reduce scrap rates and increase yield, assuring a high degree of reliability and quality in processing. For manufacturing operations that require a high degree of compliance with governmental standards and regulations, such as pharma manufacturing, RFID can provide additional information streams to support existing MES activities and enable tighter tracking, verification, and validation of processes.

Transceivers can read RFID tags and pass the information to MES systems

Transceivers can read RFID tags and pass the information to MES systems

3. Tracking and genealogy:

As pharmaceutical manufacturers know, increasingly demanding FDA quality requirements are forcing companies to better manage product information, lot tracking, and related quality standards across their entire supply chain network. If a company ever needs to recall a product, it must be carried out as quickly and as precisely as possible. RFID’s ability to provide reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information is absolutely critical to cost-effectively achieving a company’s recall objectives.

For manufacturing operations in a pharma environment that requires a high degree of compliance with governmental standards and regulations, RFID can provide additional information streams. These can support existing MES activities and enable companies to more tightly track, verify, and validate their processes in accordance with 21CFR Part 11 compliance. RFID can also complement existing MES efforts to provide genealogy tracking, typically, at each stage of processing.

4. Plant asset management:

By using RFID technology to tag their physical assets, such as machines, fork, trucks and material handling devices, manufacturers can gain better information about the location, usability, maintenance requirements and contents of these assets. Based on this information, manufacturers can devise production steps as well as maintenance and labour schedules to help increase asset costs, optimise asset performance, and maximise asset utilisation.

5. Inventory visibility:

To achieve true supply chain synchronisation, manufacturers that rely on contract manufacturing must gain greater visibility into their suppliers, as well as their customers.

The better a manufacturer can collect, manage, and use information to drive production assets and processes, the more visibility it can provide to its trading partners. Depending upon their investments in automation and MES, manufacturers can use RFID in varying scales, either locally or across the entire facility, to provide visibility about incoming raw materials, work in process, production sequencing, packaging, palletising, and warehousing operations, as well as final shipping.

6. Labour usage:

Barcoding is the current identification standard used in most manufacturing operations, but it typically requires manual intervention, which is costly and time-consuming. Companies that use RFID technology can eliminate their bar-coding systems, and thereby free up labour to perform other, more value-added tasks. RFID also can provide more accurate and reliable data than what is available through manual bar-coding methods, which can have a major impact in high volume and high-speed manufacturing operations where speed, accuracy, and timeliness are critical for throughput and performance. RFID can dramatically impact critical performance issues, including machine performance, line performance, plant performance, and ultimately, supply chain performance.