RFID-enabled Robots Create Efficiency in the Workplace

Posted by Ken Lynch on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 @ 11:04 AM

Tags: RFID, Healthcare, Manufacturing Automation, Robotics

RobotsRobots have certainly undergone their share of transformation over the years – from the  stereotypical robot in “Lost in Space” to the child-friendly WALL-E – and I think Kevin Ashton, in a recent RFID Journal article, made a good point in arguing that robots have managed to shed creepy images, but have yet to make the complete transition to being human-like.

One ongoing limitation is that robots have not been able to have a true dialogue with humans - like that between Luke Skywalker and C-3PO, who boasted to be fluent in "over six million forms of communication"! Can RFID bridge this communication gap?

A few years ago, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University embarked on a project where they used ThingMagic readers with robots in a healthcare setting. With long-range read capability, the robot named EL-E can move freely while still being able to detect RFID tags in various locations, and a finger-mounted, short-range antenna enables her to interact with a tagged object, such as handing a stethoscope to a physician.  EL-E can also assist physically-impaired people, giving them the appropriate medicine bottle when they are unable to help themselves. We’ve blogged before about how improving the patient experience can also accelerate the patients’ recovery. A robotic right-hand-man could allow nurses and physicians to spend more time researching, talking to and engaging with their patients, and therefore being able to treat the individual.

Check out another robot from Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab -  GATSBII - a PR2 robot from Willow Garage outfitted with patch antennas and a ThingMagic M5e reader, as seen on CNN’s The Big I show!

More recently, and right here in Boston, we are seeing more investment in robot technology with companies like Rethink Robotics looking for new ways to make our industries more efficient and cost-effective. Their flagship product, Baxter, is designed to fit seamlessly into a manufacturing environment to take certain types of work off the hands of employees. Because of the enhanced level of interaction between human and robot, the robot can perform risk-posing tasks such as climbing a tower to do repairs, or repetitive, assembly line work that could free up people to do more complex, value-added tasks. In doing so, people can become more productive and the business is more efficient. And we all know that greater efficiency is the key to success in today’s economy.

The video below demonstrates how Baxter interacts with humans.

With RFID tags becoming more ubiquitous , can this be the technology that breaks down that communication barrier between robots and people?

It may be a while before we can think of a robot like C-3PO as our wing-man, but with RFID we may be able to more naturally interact with the next generation of robots – not in Hollywood - but in the business arena.

Can RFID Bring Manufacturing Back to the U.S?

Posted by Ken Lynch on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 @ 04:02 PM

Tags: RFID, Retail, Manufacturing Automation

Made in USA“American Manufacturing Has Declined More Than Most Experts Have Thought.” That was the headline of a March 28 Huffington Post article. Manufacturing is in the spotlight now that Washington politicians are trying to find ways to bring the trade back from overseas and make the United States a manufacturing hub once again. The top most common reasons that businesses sent their manufacturing outside the U.S. during the last decade were high labor costs and high corporate taxes. The quest for viable margins prompted the mass exodus.

The retail industry was an early adopter of RFID because the benefits to all aspects of the supply chain were abundantly clear. Supply chain efficiency has a tremendous impact on manufacturing margins, which makes RFID an easy bet for this industry as well. 

We all know that RFID can be used in many ways to create more efficient processes which leads to lower costs and stronger bottom lines. In manufacturing and distribution environments, the implementation of RFID can reduce labor costs by reducing the workforce needed for inventory management, among other things. RFID can also store all of the history associated with a product, which helps minimize support warranties and optimize recall processes. While we don’t know yet if RFID can help reduce government imposed taxes, the benefits that RFID delivers can certainly help offset those taxes. Benefits include: increased throughput and productivity; shorter order cycles; faster shipping; more efficient inventory management; increased profit margins and better customer service.

It’s clear why manufacturers are looking to RFID to help them run more efficient operations that minimize production down time, optimize material and parts inventories and improve labor output. Of course we understand that the manufacturing companies are working with restricted budgets these days, which is another reason why RFID is a prime technology to for this market. By applying RFID incrementally across a plant floor, manufacturers can easily integrate the data captured by RFID, without disruption, into the existing infrastructure and processes.

The newly acquired, real-time visibility into the supply chain can yield tangible benefits almost immediately by letting manufacturers make more informed decisions and minimize costly errors. Could RFID in the manufacturing supply chain be just what the doctor ordered? It seems too good to be true that implementing a low cost, highly effective technology could bring an entire industry back from the brink of extinction; at least extinction in the United States. But if there was one technology that could do that, it’s no surprise that it would be RFID.

We’re not the only ones who recognize the critical role RFID can play in breathing life into manufacturing. The recentl RFID Journal LIVE! conference ran a track dedicated to Manufacturing and Operational Efficiency. Companies like Deere & Co., Boeing and Mitsubishi shared their compelling success stories. Hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit and put the U.S. back on the manufacturing map.

If you have an RFID manufacturing success story you’d like to share, please tell us about it.

Automating Order Fulfillment with a New Generation of RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 @ 08:52 AM

Tags: RFID, Manufacturing Automation, Container Tracking

Back to the Future

If you’ve been following our 100 days of RFID campaign from the beginning, you’ve known that one of the reasons we’re doing this is to celebrate 10 years of RFID in conjunction with our upcoming anniversary.  But, today we’re getting in the time machine to celebrate 15 years of RFID.  Come along for the ride as we fire up the flux capacitor!

The year is 1995 and here’s what the RFID technology scene looked like: low frequency, which meant tags couldn’t be read from a great distance; proprietary technology, which meant customers had few options when upgrading; and higher costs, which meant trading off business benefits.

Well before ThingMagic was founded, Würth Oy, a Finland-based supplier of tools, fasteners and other industrial products, pioneered RFID’s use in order fulfillment.  This was a low frequency (LF) system based upon proprietary hardware that automated the picking process along a nearly one mile long conveyer line at its plant in Riihimaki. The point came, however, when Würth no longer could obtain parts for the proprietary hardware powering the system, so it turned to ThingMagic partner Vilant to replace it with one based upon UHF without any downtime to the picking line.

Vilant - Wurth OyThe closed-loop application features 40 stationary ThingMagic Astra readers that interrogate EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags on roughly 1,000 plastic containers. The information collected via RFID is used to direct the conveyor belt system to send the containers to the proper picking stations. The key for Würth and Vilant was to make a slow and planned switchover so as not to incur any downtime, as over 70% of orders are fulfilled using this line, with over 40,000 RFID tracking events per day.

While Vilant successfully met Würth’s goal of moving its order fulfillment system to the next generation of RFID technology, it now can focus on taking advantage of what this generation provides them. In particular, the ease of maintenance and customizability of the system allows Vilant and Würth to innovate faster and easier. In addition, the greater performance of the system allows Würth to collect better data for quantifying how each picking station is used, maximizing the use of each station and eliminating bottlenecks.  Würth also is in position to eliminate paper from its picking process by presenting employees with electronic lists with locations for each item for even greater efficiencies.

Now that you know this company’s story, what RFID change do you think it’ll effect in the next 15 years? Or will it be closer to five years? We’re interested in your comments.

(photo credit: Vilant)

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