Eliminating waste and reducing inventory are key principles of Lean production. Unfortunately, this goes against everything needed for a flexible, made-to-order production line. However, factors such as operating equipment and materials can still be used economically and efficiently if the production concept is flexible enough.

With the internet, customers can create a dream car in moments. Model, colour, equipment, engine… you can customise almost every detail. However, this has an immense impact on production and logistics. All components must be ready for the production line for the car to be ready as soon as possible. The real challenge is making sure exactly the right components are available at exactly the right time. Thanks to the RFID solutions by SICK, this is possible.

Mass-scale production is a thing of the past; nowadays, products are made-to-order. As such, there is always a risk that a particular piece of equipment will not be available at the point in production when it is required. Now, using the right combination of automatic identification technology solutions, companies can know exactly where a component is at all times. As a result, production downtime is minimised.

The higher the degree of customisation, the more information the manufacturer must collect, process and evaluate during production. Every stage of the process must be monitored and documented using the same form of technology, leaving no margin for error. Moreover, until recently the need to ensure continuity and traceability across all stages posed a real difficulty for manufacturers and their sensor suppliers.

Once a car body has been painted, bar codes and Data Matrix codes become invisible, while individual punched plates and active RFID tags are too expensive for consistent use. Furthermore, identification labels attached to assembly carriers are not a safe enough solution. Vehicles move between different assembly carriers several times throughout the construction process, meaning that this solution could result in a great deal of confusion. The car body must be clearly labelled at the start of the production process, using a solution that remains visible throughout every stage in the production process – even in the paint shop where temperatures can reach up to 220 degrees Celsius.

In a bid to solve the issue, SICK took the requirements and used them to adapt RFID technology. The result? The RFU630 read/write device using UHF (ultra-high frequency) technology. Its read/write attributes have been adapted to the applications used in the automotive industry. Specially designed for easy integration, the RFU630 meets all the requirements set out for vehicle production processes.

The transponder is a stable RFID label, which is resistant to extreme temperatures, but still cost-effective. Attached to the body’s lower platform, the reliable label accompanies the vehicle right from the start of the production process. The body-ID also manages to survive the paint process unharmed, making mix-ups almost impossible.

Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Rastatt, Germany, manages its tagged vehicles using UHF-RFID devices at a various work and treatment stations, right to final assembly. After pre-treatment, car bodies are dried in an oven at approximately 180 degrees Celsius. This would put stress on most RFID systems because high-frequency reflections can impair data transmission between the transponders and the read/write devices. However, SICK’s RFID systems can withstand all hot and metalwork-heavy production processes. With approximately 350,000 readings per day in the system, accuracy is vital. SICK’s RFID solutions offer a reading accuracy of 99.98 %.

Ford is currently running a pilot material management project at its plant in Saarlouis, Germany, where it is testing an electrical overhead conveyor for engine components. The plant currently produces around 1,600 vehicles a day. Using SICK’s RFID technology, Ford has been able to document all stages of its production process, from construction of the car body to delivery of the finished product to the customer. In future, this could be extended to include repair processes, special applications, and management of loading processes. According to Dr Klaus Schmitz, Project Manager at Ford, ensuring flexibility across all production and logistics processes would give Ford a real advantage.

Until the completed cars are ready to be picked up and transported to dealerships, they are left in large parking lots. The problem occurs when it comes to finding a car that must be transported. If a car is parked in the wrong area, it may take hours to locate it. However, when information is stored on an RFID tag, the correct car is can be located and loaded up in no time.

Traceability helps companies avoid costly recalls and limit the extent of damage. For example, if a faulty component is found in a car, the company must find out which parts were used. More importantly, it must find out how many other cars are equipped with the faulty component. To ensure complete transparency in vehicle parts, manufacturers are planning to document every single component in every single vehicle in future. To achieve this, they will mark all important components with transponders, which are captured in their assembled state during the production process. SICK has created suitable RFID gates for this purpose and also offers customers its expertise in commissioning and improving reading points. Likewise, it provides manufacturers’ suppliers with RFID technology at component level.

The high-resolution identification technology enables manufacturers to trace every individual step, so they always know which models are affected and what numbers are involved. In the event of a recall, they can identify all cars that contain the component that must be repaired or replaced.