Is RFID right for you?

For the most part, data collection technology in the wood products industry has been limited to barcode scanning. However, a software supplier and a custom cabinet manufacturer are demonstrating how the use of radio frequency identification, also known as RFID, can improve manufacturing operations.

"RFID is the ability to use a radio antenna to read data from some type of tag," says Jerry McCall of Stiles Software. "These tags can be very simple, disposable-type tags that are used once. They can also be more advanced, permanent tags attached to carts and fixtures and so forth." What a manufacturer wants to know determines the tag type and placement.

RFID and barcoding are similar in that both allow someone to read data associated with a particular object, but RFID relies on automation rather than people to collect the data. "RFID allows us to be passive, meaning that a person doesn't have to go up and identify a product, put a wand directly on a product and pull the trigger," McCall says. "We can identify the product as it moves through the manufacturing process."

Cut non-value-adding time

The advantage of a passive technology is that it cuts non-value-adding time. It does, however, require that a manufacturer has workplace automation in place "that filters, reads and determines if a read is valid, if it's a useful read or if you should react to the read at that particular point," McCall says.

Barcode scanning relies on tribal knowledge to determine when to scan or read a piece of information. "In an RFID scenario, I need to have work flow that basically captures that tribal knowledge and also has some additional filtering that needs to take place to make sure that I'm getting the right reads at the right time," McCall says.

Another difference is that you can "write back to" or reprogram the RFID information at any stage of the process. Not so with barcodes. "Once that barcode has been generated, that's the data that's on there," McCall says. "You can't change or modify the data without peeling the label off, creating a new barcode and attaching it to the unit."

Hardware cost

The hardware cost of the two technologies is dramatically different. McCall says RFID equipment is five to 10 times more expensive than barcode equipment. For example, a barcode scanner may cost $1,000. A two-way, hand-held RFID scanner is about $5,000.

RFID antennas also are required. "You need an antenna to excite the tag, an antenna to read the tag, and then you may need multiple antennas to get the tag from different directions," McCall says. "That's going to be pushing $10,000."

McCall says there's a misconception that RFID is a problem-solving technology. "It's really just an extension of being able to track or read data," he says. "It's frankly no different than a barcode. It's just a more advanced, automated way to read that information."

For companies that are considering RIFD, McCall suggests that they "really study and try to understand why you want this passive reading technology. What are you going to do with it? What are the benefits of doing this?"

He also suggests finding a partner who understands your business. "RFID technology is a stand-alone technology that needs to be wrapped around your business and the way you do business," he says. "That to me is the most critical thing understanding what it is you're trying to do on the manufacturing floor."

McCall says RFID is not widely used in manufacturing, though it's more prevalent in industries that require compliance or traceability, such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace. "In our industry it still really hasn't caught on big in manufacturing," he says. "Although I know it's in the process of happening right now."

RFID at work

Custom Cupboards, a custom kitchen cabinet manufacturer in Wichita, Kan., started using RFID eight months ago. The 27-year-old company, with $34 million in annual sales, employs 325 people in its 225,000-square-foot facility.

When it started with RFID, the company had been barcode scanning sheet goods at its panel saws and routers for about three years. "We barcode scan at both those places just to keep track of the parts before they go to assembly," says Lance Johanson, vice president operations.

"When we looked at the next step, we said, Let's do RFID' because we consider RFID to be a step ahead of barcoding," he says. "We limited ourselves on barcoding at certain areas and are trying to put all our eggs in one basket under RFID because we think there are more gains out there in it."

Custom Cupboards partnered with Stiles Software on the RFID project. "They had this concept of shop floor automation," Johanson says. "We're small enough and agile enough and we think we're leading edge, a lot further along than a lot of other woodworking companies, so we said let's partner up and let's work on this."

The company adopted RFID mainly for tracking purposes. Antennas that can read the chips were placed at strategic locations. "Those antennas would tell us where those parts were inside the factory, whether they're in a work cell, whether they're in this quadrant of the factory," Johanson says. "We decided we would start off the processes with the cabinet, then maybe go back down the line eventually and do it on all the parts that go into the cabinet."

Custom Cupboards started imbedding RFID chips in the glue line of its raised panel doors as a means for tracking the movement of cabinets through the manufacturing process. However, that approach proved unsatisfactory because cabinets that didn't have raised panel doors weren't being tracked. To solve the problem, the company decided to put the chip in a label attached to the back of all cabinet frames.

Other applications

RFID provides other options, such as quality control. "We're using the information in the protocol that's in the RFID to tell us about this cabinet," Johanson says. "We scan this cabinet and it has all the information in it that tells us what this cabinet should be made like it could be color, door style, what size is the cabinet, is it supposed to have a door that hinges left? All that information is integrated into that ID chip."

Inspectors scan the RFID chip and check the completed cabinet against the protocol. "We are then taking that information and using it upstream and downstream to manage our business," he says. "We are basically doing all that through a program through Stiles called IConnect."

Johanson says he can put other information on the chip, such as tool language for cutterheads. "When we get to a certain piece of equipment, we could pull the information out of the chip and bring up tooling protocol, we could bring up machine language. We could scan the (chip), the machine could make its tool change and we'd be off and running."

Another option is in truck loading for shipping. "We can actually even put information into RFID to tell us how to load the truck in the exact sequence," Johanson says. "If it passes this portal going onto the truck, it might tell us that we're putting it on the wrong truck in the wrong sequence; put it on this truck."

Johanson says the main operational difference between the two systems is that RFID is more flexible than barcodes. "You can take information out of it, you can put more information into it, you can erase information inside the RFID chip," he says. "The difference between that and a barcode is once the information is on the barcode, then that barcode is only good with that information for that period of time."

Despite its success with RFID, Custom Cupboards doesn't plan to eliminate barcodes in the short term. "It's going to be a happy medium," says Johanson. "It's going to be a little of both." Cost is part of the reason because an RFID chip costs 15 to 18 cents, he says, while a label is a half cent. "Right now I'm going to put that RFID on something that has a lot higher value on it," he says.

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About the author

George Lausch was a staff writer and editor for FDM and CabinetMaker magazines. He wrote feature and news stories for the magazines.