Process Manufacturing with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, Aug 12, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

WIP it Good - Vaillant Group Uses RFID for Automation within One-Man Boiler Manufacturing Process

It’s hard to think about it now, but imagine if your boiler breaks down in the middle of the coldest night in January.  Imagine if it’s because one part was put in the wrong place during the assembly process.  That would make for cold, unhappy home or building owners.

Believe it or not, in this day and age when lean, fully automated manufacturing processes are adopted across industries, boiler manufactures still make products on an individual, customized basis.  This because of the meticulous quality necessary to ensure the product doesn’t fail when it’s needed the most.  It is also because homes and buildings in which boilers are installed are different, requiring customization.

So, how do boiler manufacturers go about infusing any kind of automation into these processes?  A great answer to that question is to look at how the leading European heating technology manufacturer, Vaillant Group, uses RFID to drive efficiencies in monitoring work-in-progress.

Vaillant Group has a 135 year pedigree in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.  From their first patent in 1894 (for a closed system boiler for heating water) to their recent innovations with fuel cell and heat pump technologies, Vaillant Group is now Europe’s number one heating technology manufacturer with sales of over €2.4 billion, employing over 13,000 people in eight countries.

Vaillant Group’s manufacturing in the UK concentrates on high efficiency domestic boilers.  The Belper plant has a track record in achieving significant increases in production volume and manufacturing efficiency.

Boiler production at Belper depends on a one-man-build approach, with assembly staff moving the boiler chassis on a trolley through a 15 stage manufacturing process. The operations conducted at each stage depend on the required final specification of the boiler.  Monitoring work in progress so that each boiler chassis follows every step in the right order is necessary to maintain product quality. Making best use of the production lines is vital for keeping manufacturing costs down.

RFID Keeps the Trolleys on Track

The Vaillant Group approach to manufacturing control uses RFID to monitor the movement of boilers through the assembly process and to trigger guidance to operators on which manufacturing step is needed next, as well as provide visibility to each boiler during process.  By automatically detecting the arrival of a chassis at a manufacturing stage the Vaillant Group system can power up the tools at the station only as they are required for use. This makes sure that each manufacturing and test stage is followed in the correct sequence (a chassis at the wrong stage doesn’t allow the power tools to be used). If a chassis is removed from the production flow (because of non-availability of parts for example), then the chassis can be automatically returned to the correct production stage when parts became available.

Core RFIDThe Belper production facility uses four lines each with eighteen stages. Each stage has two stations that allow the line to function as a single or twin track line.  The monitoring system uses battery assisted passive RFID tags on the trolleys to identify which boiler is at which station at which stage and ThingMagic Astra RFID readers that link back to the production flow management software system.  ThingMagic consulting partner CoreRFID recommended the use of Astra RFID reader because of its dual antenna capability, allowing it to handle the two stations at each manufacturing stage with a single reader.

Richard Sainsbury, Industrial Engineering Manager for Vaillant Group UK, summarized the benefits. “The RFID system links directly to our production management system providing immediate information where individual boilers are in the line. The RFID solution improves quality by ensuring each boiler has exactly the right manufacturing steps carried out in the correct sequence.”

Not that we are wishing the summer away, but when you fire up your boiler for the first time this fall/winter, you can think of how RFID can make a difference on how reliable it could be.

Tags: Process manufacturing, WIP, RFID

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