Manufacturing Process Tracking With RFID

nichols rfid manufacturing process

RFID provides many identifiable benefits. Two of them are removing people from the tracking process and a natural serialized numbering system. That makes it ideal for tracking manufacturing processes.

All personnel, and that includes those on the manufacturing floor, want to focus on completing their tasks and doing a good job. Asking them to also track the items they’re working on is a distraction and irritant. This leads to inconsistency in activity tracking. Relieving them of that burden through automation increases efficiency, reduces errors and provides tracking accuracy and consistency .

Benefits from automatically tracking the build process and the parts that make up the final process include:

  • Process timing

    • Identify when a step of the process is taking too long and set an alarm

      • Each process step can have a defined time to complete. This may already be defined. If not, running the solution for a week to 30 days will show consistencies and provide a standard window for completion time. This can then be used to determined aberrations. Once the aberration is identified, a cause can be determined which can then be addressed.

    • Identify bottlenecks

      • What may not be obvious from casual observation are areas in the process that run more slowly than the average. By identifying and correcting the bottlenecks, the entire process can be accelerated with limited impact to the rest of the flow.

    • Tie slowdowns to external influences

      • When tracking the process from start to finish, when there is an issue that occurs more than once, the cause may be identified as a vendor or shipper or an overlapping process that affects the flow. By knowing all of the pieces of the puzzle, these can be easily adjusted to provide more consistency.

    • Provide feedback for just-in-time planning

      • When there is visibility to the speed of each task, filling the start of the line becomes much easier to plan. That visibility can be shared with vendors and shippers to have source materials arrive at the precise time of need. This eliminates excess storage reducing inventory costs and freeing up space for future needs.

  • Worker tracking

    • Identify your best workers and mimic their habits

      • Each process step can be tied to an individual. What will likely come to light is that some team members are better at some processes than other team members. Their work habits can then be monitored and mimicked. Having them train their coworkers increases efficiency, provides pride of effort and establishes a better team environment.

    • Put workers in the best position to succeed

      • What will likely also come to light is that some team members are better at some processes than other processes. Visibility will allow moving team members into those areas where they have a better chance to succeed. A good example is that you may find that some processes are better suited to left-handed workers.

    • Identify training deficiencies

      • Besides team member differences, some processes may just not be accomplished as envisioned. The cause could be training or a poor design from the outset. Once bottlenecks and speed differences are identified, focus can be placed on these areas to make corrections in processes or training.

  • Component identification

    • Locate suppliers with issues

      • Each component can be tracked from the receiving dock to final assembly. Any issues with that final assembly can not only be tracked to team members and workstations, but all the way to initial vendor. Consistent problems will quickly illuminate the cause of the issue for correction.

    • Reduce or eliminate recalls

      • Failures that have commonalities quickly come to light. They can be identified before they are widespread so that proactive, rather than reactive, action can be taken.

    • Tie quality issues to component supplies

      • Perhaps the problem is not with the supplier, but with a particular series of components. These also can be identified for quick response.

  • Enable line flexibility

    • Customized orders can be accomplished without massive line overhauls

      • Workstations, whether automated or manual, can be adapted to a particular configuration based on the identity of the item being worked on. So, rather than running a single configuration for a particular period and then reconfiguring for the next configuration, the changes can be made on the fly. Automated workstations can be given different commands. Manual workstations can be provided with updated work steps.

    • Link process steps to order numbers and keep customers apprised of the order status

      • Now that every step is visible, that information can be provided to the customer. He can see exactly where his order is in the process and when it will be shipped.

    • Adjust quickly to parts shortages by adapting the product being made to parts availability

      • When making multiple configurations, if there is a component shortage, the plan can be easily modified to go to configurations not requiring that part so that the line can continue moving until the component shows up.


Workstation antennas are feasible, but each station must be cabled. PoE is the easiest, but still adds complications. Floor reconfigurations mean recabling and retuning the system.

The better solution is RFID RTLS (real-time location solution). Overhead antennas reduce the overall installation costs and provide for maximum flexibility. There are systems that can even accommodate 30-foot ceilings making the installation simple and keeping all cabling and antennas well out of the way of workers and machinery. Even at that height, accuracy is 3 feet or better.

Installation costs are lower. Floor reconfigurations involve only software remapping. Cabling on the floor is not affected.

Additionally, the RTLS solution provides detailed movement data as opposed to the item disappearing from one location and appearing in another. There are no gaps in the data. This prevents item mis-location and reduces shrink.

Getting going

All projects should start with thorough data and process analyses. How are they linked? Where are the best opportunities for efficiency, customer service and quality improvements, cost reductions, process improvements or elimination? Mapping this analysis will provide a guide to the best solution.

At all times start your project determining what data will improve your business and put a value on that data. That will guide your decision process and make solution selection that much easier.

Article by Mike Nichols

Mike has been working with radio frequency technologies since 1973 including radar, narrowband data communications, spread spectrum communications and now RFID. The bulk of his career has been spent translating technical information for non-technical audiences and helping companies utilize technology to fill business needs.

From 2011 – 2018 Mike Nichols was responsible for RFID strategy and business development at Intermec and Honeywell SPS. Mike has been working in the automatic identification and data capture industry since 1976. He has served in various maintenance, systems design, software development, sales support and management roles.