Among those involved in the manufacturing industry, it's common knowledge that a healthy supply chain is the foundation of a strong organization. A core aspect of ensuring all goods, components and materials get to where they're supposed to be is automated data collection. However, it's often surprising how many organizations still depend on manual processes to collect data related to inventory, shipments and other moving parts in their supply chain. A recent Automation World article explored just how important data and automation are to ensuring manufacturers can achieve quality standards and comply with traceability regulations.
The publication indicated there's been a strong push toward tracking merchandise and components from creation to the final destination in the hands of consumers. One resource that makes this complex task a reality is radio-frequency identification technology. How does it work? According to RFID Journal, this technology virtually eliminates the need for manual data capture. All necessary information is stored on a chip that's embedded in a tag outfitted with a radio antenna. Readers can then receive data, including manufacturing date and location, as well as destination, through radio signals. This information is automatically stored in a computer system.
RFID helps reduce errors in data collection and ensure manufacturers and distributors are keeping accurate records. Precision isn't only important to the organizations creating the materials - aiming to keep balanced financial records - but it also impacts customer relationships. Buyers continue to have high expectations that shipments will arrive according to contractual obligations.
Automation World cites the example of aeronautics and weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, a company that has dedicated itself to tracking all of its manufactured materials as thoroughly as possible. Currently, the business uses 2D barcodes to track components as they're assembled to create the F-35 fighter jet. It also uses RFID to keep records of the jet's wing systems, but Lockheed will eventually incorporate the technology for a wider range of purposes. Considering the size of the factory, the company needs to pay strict attention to all parts.
"The factory is one mile long and there are thousands of parts per airplane, which are touched by about 1,100 mechanics, meaning things can get misplaced easily. Barcodes and RFID keep the shop organized," Don Kinard, Lockheed's senior technical fellow for production operations, explained. There's also a financial incentive among manufacturers to use RFID for automated data collection. The price tag for the technology has come down considerably over the past several years. At the same time, the total cost of operation can fall substantially because there are fewer errors in data management.
The RFgen white paper "The Data Collection Software Buyer's Guide" highlighted many of the reasons why manufacturers need to consider an automated data collection solution. One of the most important functions of this resource and RFID tags in particular is the ability to reduce errors. According to the white paper, manufacturers can use a combination of real-time metrics gathered through mobile data collection devices by workers on the shop floor or radio tags and software to validate data entered into a central system. This translates to better relationships with customers because manufacturers can act on accurate data and limit the mistakes that can potentially sour a partnership.
Additionally, organizations can support more productive workers. Many of the time-wasting manual tasks that employees carry out are eliminated, giving them more time to focus on overall quality. Overhead costs drop as a result, giving businesses greater discretionary spending to invest in research and development or many other business priorities.
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