The role of RFID in the smart factory

05 May 2015

RFID technology will have a big role to play in the smart factory of the future, enabling ‘things’ to communicate in real-time with manufacturing systems.

In Europe we call it Industry 4.0, cyber-physical systems and the ‘internet of things’ (IoT). In America it comes under the umbrella of the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition or the Industrial Internet. However, we are all alluding to the same thing – the fourth industrial revolution and the vision of tomorrow's manufacturing – the ‘smart factory’. 

The ‘smart factory’, which industry experts say will be upon us within the next two decades, will see machines, raw materials, and products communicating within an IoT to cooperatively drive production. In other words products will find their way independently through the production process. The goal is highly flexible, individualised mass production that is cost-effective.

Commenting on this, Mark Lynch, managing director of the Fairfield Group said: “We worked with Siemens on a project for BMW recently who are using RFID to enable mass manufacturing capabilities to encompass the bespoke requests of their customers. At the point of order the customer selects certain aspects of their vehicle from its sunroof to the latest in in-car entertainment functionality. An RFID tag is mounted in the engine of each BMW at the UK plant.  The tag communicates with the production line system to drive its processes to add customer specifics as the car is built. This ensures the mass production line runs without extensive interruption whilst meeting the bespoke needs of BMW’s end customers. This is a clear example of where we can see Industry 4.0 principles in practice today.”

Smart Factories of the future will rely on both internet technologies and technologies such as RFID that enable ‘things’ i.e. components, parts, products to communicate in real-time via radio waves with manufacturing systems hosted on the cloud. Each item or ‘thing’ is expected to have its own IP address.

RFID technologies have been advancing alongside web technologies independently for the past 70 years. The introduction of ‘packet networking’ saw very early signs of the Internet emerging in the 1950s and the earliest use of RFID technology can be traced back to World War II when a secret British project developed a system that would identify whether approaching aircraft were friend or foe using RF technologies.  The fourth industrial revolution will see the two technologies come together as the web and the physical world meet.

We have all experienced the revolutionary impact the Internet has had on culture and commerce since the early 1990s but not many of us are aware of how RFID has developed and why it will play a major part in the fourth industrial revolution and the emergence of smart factories in the next two decades.

RFID explained
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is grouped under the broad category of ‘automatic identification’ technology. It is a technology that transmits the identity of an item wirelessly using radio waves. Like bar codes and optical character recognition, RFID has been developed to reduce the amount of time and manual labour required to capture data about specific items.

An RFID solution generally involves a tag and a reader. An RFID tag is a microchip attached to a radio antenna mounted onto a substrate of some kind which can store anywhere from 1 bit up to 64 kilobytes of data (this is advancing as we publish). In terms of manufacturing this could be product or shipment information, manufacture date, sell-by date etc. To retrieve the data on the tag an RFID reader is required. This is a device that has one or more antennas that emit radio waves and receive signals back from tags. The reader then passes the data in a digital format to a computer system.

RFID tags can either be passive or active. An active tag has an on-board battery that regularly transmits its ID signal. A passive tag is activated when in the presence of an RFID reader.

The earliest use of RFID technology can be traced back to World War II when a secret British project came up with a system that would identify whether approaching aircraft were friend or foe. They put a transmitter on each British plane. When it received signals from radar stations on the ground, it began broadcasting a signal back that identified the aircraft as friendly. RFID works on this same basic concept.  The reader sends a signal to a tag which wakes up and either reflects back a signal (passive RFID) or broadcasts a signal (active RFID).
Advances in RF technologies continued through the 50s and 60s and companies began marketing anti-theft solutions using radio waves. EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) tags were attached to packaging and turned off at the check-out when paid for. The readers positioned at retail doorways would detect a tag that had not been switched off at the check-out triggering an alarm.

The first RFID patents in American were recorded in the 70s and the US Government used RFID to track nuclear materials in the 1970s and to management toll payment systems in the 1980s.

RFID technology began with low frequencies and developed to higher frequencies throughout the 80s into the 90s and then came UHF (ultra high frequencies) which led to far longer read ranges (up to 6m in good conditions) and faster data transfer.

Despite all the hype of the 1990s the cost of tags and lack of international RFID standards are cited as the two main reasons why RFID technology has not been embraced as quickly and as widely as anticipated, despite its success in many applications, such as anti-theft systems for cars and payment solutions such as contactless smart cards.  GS1, the organisation that manages bar code standards, has gone on to develop an EPC (Electronic Product Code) for RF Tags as well as EPCIS that enables trading partners to share information about the physical movement and status of products as they travel throughout the supply chain.
As for RFID tag pricing – it is all relative. There are many tags to choose from and different tags at different prices are required for different reasons for applications. The simple fact remains that if an RFID solution delivers great return on investment organisations will invest.

As demonstrated by the BMW example, today’s manufacturers need to have the capabilities to launch new products incorporating innovative technologies without a lengthy or costly modification of their production lines. On the other hand they must be able to produce even the smallest of quantities (lot size of one) without increased costs in order to satisfy the varied needs of their customers. Mass customisation is the key to delivering an extensive product portfolio without dramatically increasing warehousing and logistics costs. This is what the smart factories of the future promise to deliver and in some cases utilising RFID they already are beginning to.

Mark Higham, general manager, Process Automation at Siemens said: “Siemens is fully committed to transforming Industry 4.0 from vision to reality for its customers. RFID is a key enabling technology within this concept and will support the drive towards the intelligent factories of the future. Fairfield are at the forefront of this revolution and, as a key partner to Siemens, and are helping companies transform their production processes with RFID technologies.”

The Fairfield Group have been delivering auto ID solutions since 1982 and are often described by their customers as the glue bringing all of the relevant parties together. A typical RFID project could include consultancy, software, systems integration, RFID tags and readers and other hardware. The Fairfield Group have expereince across the range of technologies available in this field in addition to RFID – including bar coding, 2D codes, UDI, laser marking and coding, key dots, OCR, verification, vision and code checking  solutions. 

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