How to Optimize the Factory and Supply Chain with RFID

Ryan Spurr

When people think of location solutions, they often think of RFID first. While other technologies now exist, RFID maintains a relevant role in locations solutions driven by its strong market presence and partly due to its robust implementation base, maturity, and reliability. Passive RFID may be an older technology compared to other standards, but it continues to evolve and maintains many benefits worthy of its continued usage in manufacturing.

What’s New with RFID Tags?

While all elements of the technical stack have evolved over the years, the first thing to consider with RFID is tags. Tags have dramatically transformed over the decades. Today, tags come in many shapes and sizes, specifically to optimize how tags attach, operate, and optimize how you locate objects being tracked. In addition to their advancing diversity, tag prices have dramatically reduced (they approach pennies for high volume use cases). Tags can also be printed using industrial RFID label printers, making it easy for manufacturers to replace traditional 1D/2D labels with RFID labels, while maintaining existing label processes and human-readable content. And just because RFID tags are typically passive, don’t think all tags must be “boring.” High-end RFID tags exist that can support high-temperature environments like kilns. Some collect sensor data such as temperature, humidity, or vibration, and others can even provide tamper evidence to ensure supply chain protection.

Moving up the stack, antennas and readers have also evolved. While some of the very same technologies exist, antennas come in many different flavors, making it easier to apply RFID in a broad range of use cases, minimizing the impact on the environments utilized within, and improving execution effectiveness. When I first implemented RFID decades ago, the antennas were simple, bulky, and visible. Today’s antennas include table mats, under workbench mounts, floor pads, door-jam attachments, and all-in-one dock door setups, and they can be mounted just about anywhere. Gone are the days when RFID was only relevant at limited choke points. Manufacturers are free to envisage many new scenarios to leverage this proven technology both in tags and supporting infrastructure.

Where—and How—to Begin Tracking with RFID

For those without any location solutions in place, another consideration is how and where to start your RFID journey. Like any initiative with boundless use cases and technologies, it’s best to keep it simple. First, RFID uses, of course, radio frequencies. And radio frequencies in manufacturing environments may be complicated by electronic emittance from machinery or limited by shelving, other physical facility structures, and—most importantly—the objects being tracked themselves. Therefore, it’s vital to assess the feasibility of RFID with your use case and environment. To address this, most initiatives require a site assessment, a review of the objects being tracked, and the risks to the radio frequency. All of this leads to the selection of the best-fitting tag(s). 

This is where many clients waste their valuable time money—or fail altogether—so it’s essential to leverage a partner with deep RFID experience who can quickly assess and recommend tags and antennas that deliver results for your intended use case. 

In addition to fixed antennas and reader infrastructure, many organizations start out leveraging RFID smart mobile devices. Most RFID software platforms are designed to work with fixed and mobile RFID technologies. Starting with a lower-cost mobile RFID device makes it easier to test the performance of tags in different use cases. This includes the often sought-after “geiger counter” functionality or the ability for employees to hunt for misplaced objects while walking around the facility. Leveraging mobile devices in the proof-of-concept phase also speeds time to value, lowers phase one implementation costs, and quickly allows your organization to prove the technology. So don’t try to do it all; take a bounded approach that leads to quick results, confidence, and continued support from stakeholders to scale or invest in more complex implementations.

Bring It All Together with RFID Software Options

Lastly, it’s essential to acknowledge what makes all this hardware work—software. This is perhaps the area of RFID I’m most excited about because my past was fraught with expensive RFID software systems, limited functionality, and never-ending challenges to maintain and keep operational. Today’s RFID software partners have robust platforms designed for on-premises and cloud, providing full integration capabilities with a wide range of hardware and business systems, making integration with business processes and applications that we wish to automate far more straightforward and productive.

Popular use cases include:

• Tool tracking: Due to a low profile and lower cost, RFID tags make an excellent option for tracking tools. Many organizations will have mobile or fixed readers to quickly scan tools as they leave tool closets or cribs, move between work cells or larger facility spaces, and arrive at the final destination. Many organizations also use tags to ensure tools are returned, and in hoarding situations, tags can be helpful in quickly locating coveted equipment or tools.

• Job or product tracking: Many organizations, especially in discrete manufacturing, have high-value parts or finished goods they wish to track through crucial process points or at a more granular level to automate traceability and integration with business systems, improve visibility, and ensure these products can be located in the event of misplacement. Tagging job paperwork, products, or packaging through the process can easily allow companies to improve how they track and optimize their workflows incrementally.

Are you looking for a use case sure to get the attention of any CFO and deliver a strong return on investment? Many organizations will utilize product tracking (whether on the product or its final packaging) to optimize the shipping process, correlate with sales orders, and streamline manual financial and customer invoicing processes to speed up how manufacturers get paid.

• Pallet or packaging tracking: Every manufacturer is different. Some products are destined for the customer and never return to the facility as part of a larger product lifecycle. For those that do have reusable pallets, specialty packaging, or products that return to the facility for repair or services, RFID tracking is a great way to track products as they arrive at customers (think about offering your clients automation and advanced supply chain notifications (ASN)) or fully automating the receiving process and delivering real-time information to an eager customer looking to ensure it hits your dock.

• Supply chain tracking: For those high-value or high-risk supply chain challenges (whether a permanent capability or as part of a short-term root cause analysis activity), RFID tags exist that can collect environmental data associated with the proper care during delivery and storage. Tamper evidence tags can also be utilized to ensure products are not compromised in transit. Whatever the case, these technologies can be used to optimize, protect, and automate various aspects of the supply chain to ensure products safely reach the ultimate customer and don’t compromise your brand.

There are many ways the technology can be applied to make manufacturing and the supply chain smarter. RFID is a practical technology to automate wasteful activities, deliver cost-effective solutions, and improve business processes and customer experience with its long-standing precedence and diversity.

If your business is looking to explore location technologies or automate various business processes aligned with corporate goals, contact an Account Manager today. They can connect you with Connection’s Manufacturing Practice to learn more about this technology and the many use cases that may benefit your organization.

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.