Radio-frequency identification plays vital role in manufacturing

Manufacturing could go full circle as individualisation starts to creep into the process engineering equation.

Henry Ford takes most of the credit for introducing mass production practices to industrialised nations. Starting out in the late 1910s, Ford realised that setting up a production line provided an efficient mechanism to produce high-quality, in-demand products. In his case, the motor car. Ford knew that not only could time be saved, but money, too, if these assembly lines were set up properly.

Who would think more than a 100 years later, manufacturers are now looking to produce very short product lines – even only one item – in a nod back to the days where most products were hand built. That is what the near future holds according to Praveen Kannan, market product manager for sensor specialist Sick.

“We are seeing that Industry 4.0 is moving from highly automated manufacturing lines, to more autonomous, self-learning manufacturing lines,” said Kannan. “We are also seeing the move from the mass production industrialisation to individual industrialisation, such as producing a quantity of one – an increased quantities of SKUs, but not having a large number of them. I call it industrialisation to individualisation. From a quality perspective, what we are seeing is the real-time improvement and so forth to continuous process options. What we are seeing is processes being adapted based on data and artificial intelligence.”

It is with this trend in mind that Kannan talks about the company’s radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors, which he said will have an important role to play in the coming decade, not only in terms of individual manufacturing but the traceability of the items.

“RFID technology has been used in the US and Australian Defence forces for a very long time to manage logistics in battle field operations,” said Kannan. “This technology came into commercial use in early 2000 when major retailers such as Walmart and Target issued a mandate to their suppliers to have RFID tags instead of barcodes. The next generation of this technology is what Sick is pioneering. It is being used to not just identify what the product is, but also provide ways for humans to interact with it.”

For example, it is possible to get a smart phone to interact with a product in a supermarket that will tell the user the history and the lifecycle of the product – from raw material to how it was manufactured, to the supply chain and then to the shelf.

“This technology is enabling the traceability of product in an agricultural or industrial supply chain – from raw materials all the way to the store,” said Kannan. “These are areas where Sick’s products have found a way to interact with each other. Identify the product, interact with the product and then the authentication of the product.

“For example, we have seen the situation [where a product] has been contaminated and has become a huge issue in terms of being recalled, which affects the consumer confidence significantly. If there is RFID technology in place we can securely articulate and authenticate the source – what farm it came from, who the farmer involved in different stages of the farming process was and so forth. This technology is enabling us to provide a way to securely authenticate the product itself.”

A side effect of how things work now means that Sick has changed its sales model when it comes to selling its Industry 4.0 sensors to its clients.  The company used to heavily push selling value – that is, what is the ROI for sensor technology? Is it 18 or 24 months?

“Now, when we go into a conversation around Industry 4.0, it is more like trend-based selling,” said Kannan. “The reason it is more trend-based selling is that some of the benefits are not quantifiable in the sense that we are uncovering benefits as we implement the technology. This is why there are early adaptors who certainly acknowledge the trend is happening and acknowledge that being an early adaptor will provide them with an advantage over other companies.”

Kannan said the company is concentrating on process engineering industries, and the food and beverage industry.

“The kind of manufacturing is a broad spectrum – automotive manufacturing, hardware manufacturing such as the wood industry,” said Kannan. “Also the chemical and paint industries. Continuous data collection and continuous process optimisation – that is also where there is a need from the consumer point of view to make more customised product than a more mass produced one.”

Sick is also not shy in putting it out there that it wants app developers to come on board, too.

“Our AppSpace enables app developers and encourages them to develop apps for and on the sensors,” said Kannan. “On top of our developer platform, we have what we call an AppPool, which sits in the cloud and allows collaboration in terms of data sharing that allows general analytics, mission learning and prediction tools on top of the data that we collect.”

And when it comes to modern sensors and Industry 4.0, data is becoming an increasing key ingredient in the equation. Kannan said Sick realised this sometime ago and has a large number of sensors that can capture a whole range of data in a variety of applications.

“The key differentiation for the market is the spectrum of sensors we have to capture the data. You need to capture data to analyse the data. We have a wide variety of sensors to capture data be it laser-based technology, or camera-based technology or RFID technology, we have it covered.”

Process engineering and manufacturing are always going to be about producing primary products. But as data collection becomes an important part of the equation, the sensor is can make sure not only that a plant is running smoothly, but that it is providing information that can save time and money to a manufacturer’s bottom line.