analyst, Gartner Inc.


It was Benjamin Franklin who said: ‘Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.’ Companies considering a major RFID implementation would do well to heed that advice.

RFID (radio frequency identification) – a wireless data collection technology that uses electronic tags for storing data – has been the focus of controversy for some time now. While some applaud it as the best thing since sliced bread, others advise caution – especially with large scale RFID projects. Companies will [only] benefit from RFID technology if they can use it to improve business processes.Jeff Woods>

Technology-business alignment – the buzz phrase of these days – is especially vital in such projects, one expert says.

According to Jeff Woods, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based IT research company Gartner Inc. “companies will [only] benefit from RFID technology if they can use it to improve business processes.”

Ford Automobile Co. of Canada Ltd. says it has done just that.

Use of RFID at Ford Canada’s facility in Oakville, Ont. is leading to significant business benefits, the company says.

RFID technology, it says, is helping transform the Oakville Assembly Complex (OAC) into a Highway 407-like facility where incoming trailers with shipments will be managed through wireless transponders mounted on trucks.

Specific benefits include huge time and cost savings, more precise tracking, and flexible manufacturing processes that are aligned with ever changing supply and demand.

“Just in time” manufacture is one key capability the new technology has made possible, according to a company spokesperson.

This means parts are delivered to the assembly line at the time they are needed for manufacture of automobiles, explained Alex Kumfert, materials flow manager at OAC.

He said this process improvement has been made possible through an RFID-enabled automated tracking system that has been introduced after years of managing the process manually.

Earlier, workers would record the arrival and location of shipments on paper – a difficult task considering more than 500 trailers arrive at the Oakville complex every day. “At any given time, we were not sure about where items were located. Our earlier system did not tell us when the trailers arrived and left.”

As part of the new wireless tracking system, he said, a transponder – the size of a pager – will be attached the top left corner of a trailer.

When the trailer reaches OAC, it will be identified by a small transponder via a radio frequency transmission. A compatible reader at the gate would automatically note the trailer’s details including time of entry, the shipment’s contents and its location. “An e-mail alert will be sent to department heads only if the shipment fails to come on time,” said Kumfert.

With the RFID implementation at the Ford Oakville plant, three automobile manufacturers are now using this technology in Canada.

The wireless tracking system at OAC will be fully operational by July. The plant might use it for personnel tracking as well, according to Kumfert.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based WhereNet Corp., is providing Ford Canada with the components for this implementation. These include ports, transponders and 68 antennas for Wi-Fi and VoIP (voice over internet protocol) access. “After trailers enter the complex, real time location systems will help Ford track the trailers,” said Gary Latham, director of industry marketing at WhereNet.

According to Latham, prior to the RFID implementation, it took Ford personnel half an hour to locate a particular shipment in the complex. Now these will be tracked within minutes. “We are going beyond tracking shipments. We are applying business rules to RFID and helping Ford move towards flexible manufacturing.”

Frank Gourneau, OAC plant manager explains how flexible manufacturing will be possible once the system is in place. “Imagine for a moment that a dramatic spike in fuel prices creates a flurry of customer orders for hybrid versions of Ford Edge.

Wireless technology would help us get the appropriate parts to the assembly area, in proper sequence, and at the precise time they are needed. We will be flexible in our manufacturing process and save on warehousing costs.”

Woods said it is too early to say if adoption of wireless tracking technology by Ford Canada will encourage other companies in the area to do the same.


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