Conveying The Need For RFID
While systems integrator Richards-Wilcox subcontracts
most data collection aspects of its installations, it feels radio frequency identification (RFID) is important enough to concentrate on itself.
Richards-Wilcox (Aurora, IL) is a privately held company with a history of making items such as hinges, door tracks, and handles since the 1880s. Today, the company also designs conveyor systems for large warehouses in a variety of vertical markets. Richards-Wilcox is not a VAR. In fact, the company counts on nearly 200 partners for its automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) and data storage needs. However, there is an exception to this rule: Richards-Wilcox is a systems integrator for radio frequency identification (RFID) products.
RFID is similar to bar code technology in that both use special readers along with tags or cards attached to an object. The difference is that RFID allows data collection without visual or physical contact with a tagged item. RFID uses low-power radio waves or signals. These signals can travel easily through non-metallic materials and don't need direct contact with the device to read the signal. In the simplest terms, RFID systems communicate data by radio.
Steve Calvert, national sales manager for the Conveyor Group at Richards-Wilcox, says the company takes this stance with RFID because it feels the technology is important to the company's future. "We usually outsource AIDC technology," he explains. "But we keep the RFID aspect of installations so we can educate our distributors and our end users. This technology has also allowed us to have a much wider focus because we can provide the latest data collection technology. We want to increase our position as a value-added provider of turnkey solutions. That's why we want to work with RFID." Richards-Wilcox is developing a solution created by a recent partnership between Philips Semiconductors (Sunnyvale, CA) and Escort Memory Systems (Scotts Valley, CA). The solution uses Escort Memory Systems' HMS-Series passive read/write systems around Philips' MIFARE technology. The solutions are used in automotive, material handling, and electronic applications.
The RFID Niche
Richards-Wilcox uses RFID technology in its Conveyor Group, a subset of its Industrial Storage Group. This division manufactures overhead conveyor systems for manufacturing and storage, among other things. "The basic technology for conveyor systems is old," Calvert admits. "There are different ways to manufacture the systems, but the original concept stays the same. However, the way to identify and monitor the items on these conveyors keeps advancing. In my opinion, RFID technology improves and becomes more sophisticated every week.
"RFID has really evolved during the past couple of years," he explains. "Until recently, the technology didn't work well in the paint systems you see in the automotive industry. The tags couldn't withstand the heat that's created for drying paint. Today, we use RFID in all of our automotive industry installations, which account for about 50% of our business in the Conveyor Group."
Richards-Wilcox uses the technology in markets that require high-speed transmission of product information. This has expanded the company's scope to include work in process manufacturing customers like automotive and aerospace companies.
How The Solution Works
"One of our end users misplaces about $1 million worth of product in its plant each year," Calvert details. "Lost product means a loss to the bottom line, even if the product is still in the plant somewhere."
Conveyor systems equipped with RFID devices allow packages to be placed on a track to take them to their destination. The added benefit – they collect specific information about products at the same time. For example, in the automotive industry, an overhead conveyor belt can carry car bumpers across the shop floor. By being suspended, a greater surface area of the bumper can be painted. With RFID tags on each bumper and readers located at specific areas along the track specific information like paint temperature, and time of painting can be written to the tag. The tag already contains an item number and a destination.
The information collected from these RFID tags is then processed by a PC. The information can be uploaded into a company's warehouse management system (WMS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. A WMS is a set of software that manages and tracks activities, and automates the flow of all materials and information through a warehouse. WMSs must interface with host systems, like ERP or legacy systems. ERP is a broad set of activities supported by software that helps businesses manage information within different segments of a company.
"We create operator interfaces and control screens that let conveyor operators decide what happens within that system. The information gathered by RFID is extracted with software written by Escort Memory Systems. From there, another layer of software provided by another systems integrator takes the information we gather and acts as a data collection bridge to the WMS or ERP solution."
What To Expect
Calvert doesn't see a surge in RFID technology in any given vertical market - he sees it in all Richards-Wilcox verticals. "The technology will expand, without question," he declares. "We want to propose RFID solutions in almost every case where we have a potential customer - even for educational purposes."
What's Calvert's advice to VARs considering RFID technology? Jump on the bandwagon. "Learn as much as you can about the technology and educate your end users," he suggests. "Competition in our industries is big. We provide custom solutions and have creative people in engineering and sales. While we have a strong history, we must continue to look at emerging technologies in order to remain competitive. We see our work in RFID as a step in the right direction."
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.