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Maintenance uses for Radio Frequency I.D.

Automatic Identification and Data Collection (AIDC) is a term applied to technologies that automate the capture of information in computer systems. AIDC endeavors to replace the manual entry of data by mechanization. It is typically employed in situations where a key piece of information is entered in a repetitive manner to drive transaction processing or identify a larger data set. Its goals are to reduce the effort, speed the processing time and increase the accuracy of these data-entry activities. Anyone responsible for auditing assets, managing tools, maintaining inventory, performing inspections, or recording equipment condition readings can appreciate these objectives.

Bar coding is the most common AIDC technology. It is typically used to encode a key piece of information like a part number so a scanning device can subsequently read it. This scan is part of a transaction that involves counting or locating the part. Scanning the bar code eliminates the labor involved in keying and helps eliminate data-entry errors.

But bar codes have disadvantages. They depend on a line-of-sight scan that may be difficult to acquire, and they typically require a human to perform the scan. This takes time--when the operator actually performs the scan. If the stockroom attendant forgets to scan the part as it is put away, the item cannot be systematically located.

Bar codes also are not well suited for the harsh conditions in many facilities. They are basically static identifiers that may not be a good match for an application that requires data to be stored and updated multiple times on a remote object. Bar-code labels cannot execute logical instructions, and do not allow an item to be located within a facility with any certainty in a real-time mode. They can only support the application that reports the last recorded location.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is also an AIDC technology, but without the above limitations. While it is not new--anybody with an electronic toll-road tag or a proximity-access security card is an RF1D user, for example--costs and a lack of standards have restricted its use. It is beginning to make waves in supply-chain management, however. Earlier this year, for example, Wal-Mart announced it would require its top 100 suppliers to apply RFID tags on shipping cases and pallets by 2005. As a result, many manufacturers, suppliers and distributors are beginning RFID pilot programs.

To appreciate how RFID can help maintenance management, you must first have a basic understanding of the concept. As its name implies, RFID transmits information wirelessly through radio waves using four components:

* RFID tag--an IC chip and antenna encapsulated in a medium that can be affixed to the object being tracked

* Interrogator--a device with an antenna used to read/write information on RF1D tags

* Controller--a device and associated software used to send/collect information from one or more interrogators. Controllers serve as the interface between the tag/interrogator and the application that RFID supports

* Application--the computer system and software that utilizes information stored on RFID tags.

Interrogators transmit a specific radio frequency. Tags that are within range of this broadcast respond by transmitting back their encoded information. Tags are either passive or active. Passive tags are powered by the interrogator's broadcast. Active tags have their own internal battery power source. Passive tags are similar to linear bar codes in that they are generally used to store and transmit a single identifier. Since they have their own power source, active tags can generally store more information. Some can perform rudimentary computing tasks. They also tend to have a longer range than passive tags.

Interrogators come in many sizes and shapes. They can be added to a handheld or vehicle-mounted computer as an external or integrated device. They can be placed in a fixed location designed to capture tag information on items that are moved within their transmission range. They can also be arrayed in a network to provide area coverage.

Applications vary in how they interact with RFID. Some treat RFID reads like keyed data or bar-code scans; others work specifically with RFID tags.

Any maintenance application that benefits from bar coding is a potential RFID candidate. RHD can support asset management, tool tracking, inspections, lubrication, secured access, safety audits and condition-monitoring programs in environments unsuitable for bar codes. But RFID's potential in maintenance management goes beyond being a barcode substitute. RFID tags can do things bar codes cannot, such as:

* Monitor equipment conditions

* Track movement of assets and tools in a facility without line-of-sight scanning or manual data entry

* Record inspection and service activities on an asset each time it is serviced.

* Trigger alerts or control processes.

Nowhere is RFID's potential more apparent than in the maintenance storeroom. Here, it can provide the basis for a secure, unattended storeroom where material issues and receipts are automatically captured without a human-generated transaction. It can support real-time links between MRO suppliers and the storeroom. EPC-tagged product can be tracked at the individual item level throughout the supply chain. Imagine what this means for product recalls, hazardous-materials management and reliability tracking.

As prices drop, the potential of RFID is expected to drive its use throughout the entire supply chain. Pallet and case tagging will lead to individual items being tagged at the manufacturer, thanks to the emerging Electronic Product Code (EPC) standard.

Will RFID replace bar coding overnight? No. But it's coming, and savvy maintenance professionals will keep their eyes on it.

Tom Singer is an Information Technology consultant who specializes in the design, development and implementation of Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) and Warehouse Management System (WMS) solutions. He is a principal of Tompkins Associates, an international supply-chain consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, NC. Tom invites IMPO readers to e-mail their CMMS questions to:
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Title Annotation:CMMS Solutions
Author:Singer, Tom
Publication:Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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