Drive RFID Sales In The Automotive Industry
Youngstown Systems Company, Inc. finds a demand for RFID (radio frequency identification) in the automotive industry that now accounts for 35% of the integrator's annual sales.
Unlike many VARs and integrators, Howard Jenkins isn't waiting for the price of an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag to drop below 50 cents before he begins selling this data collection technology. He's also not waiting for the development of a single RFID standard. And, he sure isn't going to wait for some giant retailer or manufacturer to finally adopt this technology throughout its supply chain, thereby opening the floodgates of RFID sales. Instead, Jenkins is selling this technology right now.
Jenkins is the founder and executive VP of integrator Youngstown Systems Company, Inc. (YSC) (Youngstown, OH). In existence since 1987, YSC's primary business is designing electrical systems that control when and where a conveyor belt should start and stop on an assembly line. In 1997, Jenkins received a call from a conveyor company seeking a control system for a new conveyor sold to a manufacturer of automobile seats. Little did Jenkins know that the automobile market would eventually account for 35% of his company's sales and lead to him becoming an RFID integrator.
RFID? How Are We Going To Do That?
"We designed an indexing assembly line for the auto seat manufacturer," Jenkins explained. "In other words, the pallets that hold a seat move 4 feet at a time to be positioned directly in front of an employee who adds another component to the seat." Once the assembly line was installed and running smoothly, the plant's general manager presented YSC with a new challenge: design an RFID system to track seats throughout the assembly process. (The plant manager knew about RFID since the company had already implemented the technology at another location.) "Of course, I confidently said 'Sure, we can do that,'" Jenkins quipped. "And then I went back to the office and we all looked at each other and said, 'How are we going to do that?'"
After researching RFID technology and its vendors on the Internet, Jenkins called three RFID companies and explained his problem. Ultimately, he chose Texas Instruments RFid Systems (TI) (Plano, TX) and completed all of the training the vendor offered.
Help Customers Avoid Costly Fines
The seat company was seeking an RFID solution because of a common problem experienced by many manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Namely, some workers disrupt the automated assembly process so they can take a break. For example, at the seat plant, workers could cause a line shutdown by moving seats out of sequence. Besides the cost of downtime, this behavior created the possibility of a seat missing a key station in the assembly process.
Another example involved the bar-coded build tickets used to track seats throughout the assembly process. Of course, for this system to work effectively, there needed to be an employee using a bar code scanner. Somehow though, the bar code scanners were "accidentally" being dropped and run over by forklifts.
How much damage could these types of disruption really cause? "An inoperable or missing seat would cause an automobile production line to stop," Jenkins explained. "The only way to get a vehicle off of a production line is to drive it off, and if there isn't a seat, what can they do? For every minute the auto factory's production line is shut down because of a missing or wrong component, the supplier of that component is charged anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000."
Prepare For The Growing Pains Of RFID
The first system YSC designed for the seat manufacturer used 1,000 low-frequency (134 KHz) RFID tags from TI attached to the seats' pallets. At the start of the line, the build number (from the seat manufacturer's database) is "written" to an RFID tag via an RFID reader/writer. Other readers are attached under the conveyor belt at critical points where the line could go in two directions. At each of these junctures, a pallet's tag is read to ensure no one has removed a seat or disrupted the sequence of the seats. If a tag is out of sequence a red light is lit above the specific station where the problem was detected. The line stops and a supervisor immediately investigates the problem.
"Although the project was ultimately a success, we struggled at first to get it working," admitted Jenkins. "For instance, at first, if two pallets were too close together on the conveyor, the RFID reader would read both pallets' build numbers." To solve this problem, YSC developed new antennas (attached to the readers) that were more directional than the original ones. YSC also had to design enclosures for the tags so they could withstand the impact of a hammer and the heat from the steaming ovens the seats pass through. Finally, YSC had to design a metal box with a screwed-on lid that would enclose the power cord plugs of the readers because employees would unplug them. However, Jenkins said the most difficult part of this, and any RFID project, is writing the interface programs for integrating the RFID system's data with the customer's enterprise systems (e.g. SQL Server).
One Successful RFID Install Leads To Another
Once that initial RFID project was deemed successful, the seat company began requesting YSC install the same type of system in other plants, although one of those requests was not for a seat tracking application. The customer wanted YSC to redesign an existing RFID application that tracked POD (passive occupant detection) systems through the seat assembly process. POD systems are designed to prevent airbags from injuring small children sitting in a vehicle's front seat. These systems are built into the front passenger seat of many new vehicles and weigh the seat's occupant and modify the deployment of a dashboard airbag accordingly.
"The customer's existing RFID system wasn't working well," Jenkins said. "We were able to identify that some of the problems interfering with the system included: the wrong placement of the reader, a low-frequency [134 KHz] system [YSC now uses high-frequency 13.56 MHz RFID products. See sidebar on page 38.], metal nuts and bolts holding the tags on the pallets, and improper electrical shielding."
Each POD system has to be calibrated and verified at the end of the seat production line. YSC's RFID system added data such as the vehicle identification number (VIN) and the calibration information to each seat's RFID tag. Once a seat is at the auto plant, its pallet tag info is saved on the automaker's computer system. Therefore, if anyone is injured by a passenger-side airbag, the automaker can trace the seat back to its origin and verify if the POD system was calibrated correctly.
Don't Wait For The Big Score
So far, YSC hasn't been involved in any multimillion-dollar RFID projects. Jenkins said his types of seat tracking RFID solutions have cost customers approximately $80,000 each, depending upon the amount of software integration and the number of stations outfitted on the assembly line. Furthermore, he explained that the RFID hardware (e.g. tags and readers) offers small margins compared to the money he makes from integration services.
But Jenkins isn't concerned that he hasn't landed that one huge RFID project. Instead, he knows there are a lot of auto seat manufacturers - as well as other auto component vendors - that would be interested in his RFID expertise. He's even designed a small conveyor demonstration unit that he plans to use for landing new sales clients. "This industry is like a big family, everybody knows everybody else, and they talk about who is successfully using what technology," he said. "Therefore, why wait to sell RFID when there's a demand for it right now?" Why, indeed.