February 19, 2006
 

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Posted: 11.01.05

Building Bridges

Corpus Christi, Texas, is a popular vacation spot known for the fishing, swimming, sailing and other diversions that take place along the shores that skirt the Gulf of Mexico. A fact missing from the recreational guides, however, is that the city is also home to one of the more sophisticated and extensive radio frequency ID (RFID) manufacturing applications in the country.
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By Tim Scannel




Located about 10 miles southeast of the city, the Corpus Christy Army Depot (CCAD) is spread over 140 acres and includes a 1.9 million square-foot manufacturing facility that specializes in the overhaul, repair and modification of all types of military helicopters and rotary wing aircraft. Within the facility, workers routinely breakdown Blackhawk, Chinook, Apache and other helicopters and then re-use parts to build completely refurbished aircraft. Thousands of parts from each helicopter are routinely bagged and tagged with an RFID device that identifies what the part is and where it is located within the sprawling facility. These tagged pieces are then used to repair other helicopters and in some instances come together to build an entirely new aircraft from the refurbished and rebuilt parts.

Since its inception in 1961 as a relatively small maintenance station, the CCAD has repaired or rebuilt tens of thousands of aircraft and supplied these to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force worldwide. This unique organization is also charged with distributing overhauled and refurbished parts and maintaining a rapid mobilization base in the event of a national emergency—a duty that is even more critical given threats of terrorism and natural disasters such as the recent hurricane that devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas.

“The logistics of this task are just enormous,” says Armando Viteri, president and CEO of RF Code, a maker of RFID middleware that is designed to work with both passive and active RFID systems, as well as with a variety of sensor technologies.

To keep things flowing smoothly and parts channeled to the right place the CCAD relies on active and passive RFID systems to track both parts and tools. The system not only tells workers exactly where needed parts are located but can be used to monitor individual worker productivity. The system does this by maintaining a real-time audit trail of each part and tracking such details as how long it took that part to move among workstations and alerting administrators when inventory levels drop too low to support the amount of work to be done. “It’s a great incentive for people to move fast, since there is a detailed audit trail of parts,” says Viteri. “There is an awful lot of information related to how the manufacturing flow and process works, and it’s all based on these RFID tags.”

Building Knowledge Bridges

Despite the enormity and uniqueness of the application, the CCAD workers and the military face the same concerns and challenges as most companies presently involved in or just getting their feet wet in RFID-based manufacturing. These include the challenges of linking newer technology with legacy systems, transmitting information back from the point of sensing to a centralized computer system or database and mapping collected data to existing database and information resource structures.

By far, one of the biggest challenges today is building a “knowledge bridge” between the data collected by the hundreds, or even thousands, of sensors located throughout a manufacturing plant and the existing business intelligence software used at the executive levels of a company. At the moment, there are two ways to accomplish this task: You can create an applications-programming interface (API), which basically translates the collected information into standard XML-based data grams; or simply have a data collection application stuff a database with millions of bytes of data and then configure a database application to pull what is needed from this information stew.

Unfortunately, both approaches result in a potentially massive and growing amount of data, which can tax even the most nimble database and filtering program. This is why many RFID companies—in particular the sensing hardware and middleware manufacturers—are actively working with database and business intelligence companies to develop ports to their programming and create information bridges from the manufacturing floor to back-room IT systems.

There is one other alternative, of course, and that involves inserting some level of intelligence directly at the sensor locations, or else building sensor micro-networks that can collect information from small groups of sensors and analyze it before sending it off to a centralized business intelligence location.

For example, RF Code has developed what it describes as an “edge box,” which manages all the network routing, all of the first-level data collection and performs some initial filtering of the sensor data. In short, the device performs duties usually requiring a dedicated PC or server, but is in a physical format about twice the size of a pack of cigarettes, explains Viteri. “The idea is that once you get to the store level, or into an individual department, you may not have the bandwidth to support those smaller sites. So, this is a cost-effective way to deploy RFID applications.”

The company has also created a data management platform for hybrid identification, or different RFID sensing devices called TAVIS, which are designed to work across various applications and supply chain environments. TAVIS acts as the monitoring backbone of a manufacturing RFID system, providing the first and second layers between data collection devices and application-specific software such as inventory control, warehouse management and ERP and supply chain execution. It also serves applications that require instant response, including access control and personnel tracking, says Viteri. “No single technology solves the entire problem, but the aggregate of them does represent a solution.”

Putting a Spin on the Bottleneck

Rob Conant, co-founder and VP of marketing and business development for Dust Networks, a California company specializing in wireless sensor networks for industrial and commercial applications, agrees that in some cases there is a problem of too many sensors and not enough intelligence. However, an even greater concern is the lack of adequate bandwidth, especially as sensor technology assumes a more active stance and transmits information almost continuously. This problem may get even more acute as wireless mesh networks take the place of hard-wired and Wi-Fi–based infrastructures and the amount of data flowing through these networks increases dramatically.

“The bottleneck is in getting that information back from the sensing assets and back into the computer system,” explains Conant. “There are a lot of smart people in the world who can write software to analyze that information.”

Compatibility, security and other issues that keep even the most battle-hardened enterprise network manager up at night are also concerns in the manufacturing RFID world, although these wireless infrastructure concerns take a backseat to more applications-specific worries.

RFID system compatibility, once a problem because of multiple and conflicting standards in readers from different vendors, is easily solved through third-party alternatives. One of these is from iAnywhere Solutions’ XcelleNet division, which developed a product called RFID Anywhere that operates on the Microsoft.Net framework and builds upon the machine-to-machine synchronization technology XcelleNet
created for its Afaria product before the company was acquired by Sybase and iAnywhere. RFID Anywhere eliminates the problem of incompatible RFID readers, which means users don’t have to spend a lot of money on a multi-format reader to overcome the incompatibility problem, says Steve Robb, iAnywhere senior director of marketing and an XcelleNet veteran.

Security is always a concern in any wireless environment, but less worrisome since architects in manufacturing RFID kept a close watch on the successes and failures in Wi-Fi and learned by the mistakes made in that segment of the industry. “Typically, systems are installed within buildings and designed to be contained within a building,” says Conant. “We took a cue from the Wi-Fi world and looked at all the headaches they had from early on, and made sure that we nailed the security issues up front. There is lots of good technology already developed that can be taken over to a mesh network environment without reinventing the wheel.”

Working with Wi-Fi Worries

One concern that is not an issue in generic Wi-Fi is effectively mapping sifted and filtered data to a specific business process. “Making the data actionable and specific to the way a business operates is one piece of the puzzle that is not a carbon copy from site to site,” notes Conant.

While companies like RF Code develop systems that are more focused on the location of a tagged object, Dust Networks has taken more of a backdoor approach to manufacturing by tackling issues such as energy management and equipment maintenance. “Lots of companies see energy management as their most expensive raw material,” says Conant, especially now in light of the crippled refineries and ports in Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina. Dust technology is applied to manufacturing applications and closely tied to shifting energy prices to determine the best times and techniques to achieve the most cost-effective manufacturing run, he explains, pointing out that 10 to 30 percent of the cost of manufacturing a typical notebook computer is related to the electricity used in its manufacture and current energy prices.

RFID sensors and technology are also used to monitor the health of manufacturing equipment and to minimize the amount of downtime due to failed systems, adds Conant. The potential cost savings of utilizing such systems is substantial since an estimated $20 billion per year is lost in U.S. manufacturing because of unscheduled downtime of machinery.

While many companies recognize the effectiveness of RFID tracking and sensor networks in reducing maintenance costs in manufacturing, most systems right now are dedicated to larger manufacturing deployments, not smaller ones. “One of the challenges is that all those pumps and motors that are less than 300 horsepower are not monitored today, so there is a great interest in getting predictive information from those devices back into an analysis tool, so that people can predict the failure of those devices before they fail.”

The rising demand for RFID in all segments of manufacturing has attracted the attention of a number of big-name players in the IT world, including Microsoft, which last year formed the Microsoft RFID Council to consider the RFID requirements in manufacturing, retail and other industry segments and come up with ways to develop and apply technology to solve supply chain problems and increase efficiencies.

“There is probably more demand than there are trained resources that know how to deal with this stuff,” Conant explains. “There are a ton of companies doing projects from the pilot to production stage today, but the systems integration community doesn’t have nearly the number of bodies to satisfy the demand. So everyone is doing on-the-job training.”
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