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Monday | 05 November, 2012 | 10:13 am

Tagged visibility

By Nick Wright

Steel basket manufacturer adds RFID to custom line for tight inventory control

November 2012 - You’re the owner of a massive component manufacturer. It’s Friday, and you’ve left for the day. As you sit down to dinner, your phone vibrates in your pocket. It’s your WIP software alerting you via text that it’s detected a batch of parts that are out of spec. You excuse yourself, call your nightshift manager and he pinpoints exactly which batch and production run went wrong. He pulls them from the workflow and resolves the problem so you get the right parts out on time.

With the help of the wireless radio-frequency identification solution integrated in the plant, the shift manager effectively allocated the necessary resources to keep the process moving.

Better known as RFID, radio frequency tracking has been around in some form for decades. The simple wireless transmission of raw data tracks anything from the local grocery store’s inventory to how much drivers owe the toll road. But RFID signals are only as effective as the hardware that transmit and read them.

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With the intent of taking RFID to the next level for fabricators and manufacturers, two Baltimore companies have joined forces to seamlessly integrate RFID tags with steel baskets not only for tight inventory control but also for production bottlenecks.

In September, Marlin Steel Wire Products, a manufacturer of custom steel and stainless steel wire and mesh baskets, and Barcoding Inc., an integrator of RFID technologies, launched custom steel baskets with built-in RFID tags for inventory management. The combination of the baskets and RFID allows companies to track high-value components like gears for OEMs from a computer or smartphone.

Jay Steinmetz, president and CEO of Barcoding, explains customers in the aerospace or automotive industries, need to know where a container of metal components is in the process in case of a manufacturing error. Singling out the defective part quickly ensures a problem is fixed before it leaves the warehouse.

“It’s important for a company to know that an item it’s milling is in container X,” he says. “If it gets deployed into product ABC that ends up having problems down the line and it turns out to be the milling of product X, they can track exactly which production run it was and find exactly which container that came out of.”

Marlin Steel tailors its steel baskets in a range of sizes, whether it’s a hand-held 3-inch by 3-inch by 1-inch or a 4-foot by 4-foot by 5-foot basket, to accommodate one of two tags depending on the customer’s need. A polymide nylon EPC Gen 2 tag can read up to 24 feet away and a ceramic tag can read up to 3 feet. 

Next level of lean

Steinmetz says the RFID-tagged baskets are elevating lean manufacturing principles to another level. By taking a page from the Kanban system, which relies on signals to indicate restocking of material to process, manufacturers will reduce excess inventory on hand. They can be more nimble with existing material. If there are 87 widgets by the mill, 63 at the lathe and 57 at another work cell, a company can have accurate visibilitofto where parts are queued.

“It’s going to be tied in with Marlin’s baskets and Barcoding’s software to determine exactly where every single bit of inventory is in their plant,” says Steinmetz, adding that the RFID-equipped material handling eliminates possible human error with an RFID reader. The raw RFID data can be analyzed with Barcoding’s software, or a company’s existing inventory management system.

By the fourth quarter this year, Marlin Steel president Drew Greenblatt anticipates having the system operating with clients. The trick, he says, will be promoting those companies that may want to keep the system mum from competitors.

“This will be major strategic benefit for these entities,” says Greenblatt. “It’ll enable them to reduce their costs, increase gross profits and they won’t want their competitors to know about it and follow along.”

For metals industry applications, fabricators and manufacturers stand to benefit. Marlin Steel is finalizing the RFID system for its own in-house manufacturing, as well as demonstrating it to prospective clients.

“We’re right now talking with several fabricators,” Greenblatt says. “Those will be companies who are assembling high dollar value items. They’ll be the ones who will get the fastest and quickest payback.” MM

 

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