By Pedro Pereira, Field Technologies magazine
Real-time asset tracking and reduced labor costs are driving the gradual adoption of RFID for field service environments.
RFID is one of those technologies that has shown promise for many years but has taken time to catch on. In recent years, as the technology became more reliable and affordable, RFID tags and readers found their way into a wide variety of industries to track assets, groceries, livestock, and even people. But, one of the most common uses is to track and identify objects for maintenance and compliance purposes.
These days, you’re bound to find RFID tags on assembly lines to track and monitor manufacturing processes, on aircraft parts to ensure repairs and maintenance are performed on schedule, and on construction machinery and medical equipment to prevent loss and ensure compliance with maintenance schedules and safety standards. The reasons for RFID use are as varied as the companies that employ the technology, but experts say where technology shines is the ability to track and identify objects in real time. And that is essential, because if you can’t find a piece of equipment that needs maintenance, you can’t fix it. When that happens, schedules go off track, possibly creating safety issues that could lead to burdensome remedial costs.
“Where RFID provides so much more value than just an ID is in locating assets due for maintenance,” says John Hurliman, director at Fluensee, a vendor of asset-tracking and supply chain management solutions. “We hear a lot about how much time and labor it takes to find assets that are due for some sort of regular process. With an RFID tracking infrastructure in place, it takes significantly less effort to find those assets.”
L. Allen Bennett, VP of sales at Entigral Systems, an asset-tracking systems vendor, says what’s driving RFID adoption is the desire to replace manual processes prone to error, especially where repeatable tasks are the norm; to improve management processes; and control the associated costs. Beyond that, he says, there is a safety component for industries such as airlines, where RFID implementation incurs a new expense but potentially prevents bigger costs. For example, Lufthansa Technik AG, a civilian aircraft maintenance provider, is using an RFID system to track aircraft parts. Data collected from tags on documents that accompany the parts verifies the authenticity of the components to make sure the right ones are used. Stationary and handheld readers that communicate with the tags have automated what was once a time-consuming, error-prone manual process.
Some Big Advantages Over Bar Codes
Speed and accuracy, says Andre Coté, VP of worldwide business development at RFID tag supplier Omni-ID, are the primary benefits of RFID implementations. RFID tags are replacing bar codes in many places where bar codes are easy to damage, hindering the ability to identify and track objects. One example is vehicle tires. “The bar codes don’t last, and reading a bar code isn’t the easiest thing to do on a double-wheel trailer,” he says.
Another example, he adds, involves the inspection and repair of utility pipelines. “It’s difficult to read a bar code on a pipe from long distances or even to have line of sight, especially if the pipe is underground. RFID affords you the opportunity in all these cases to identify the part quickly and reliably, even in harsh environments.”
Unlike bar codes, RFID tags have no line-of-sight requirements to read and send the data to the software applications that organize and store data about schedules, use history, and location. “RFID tags with large memory and read/write capability can store information locally on the tag itself, as well as interact with onboard sensors that monitor pressure, temperature, and other factors, providing detailed feedback to process owners,” says Ravi Panja, president of InSync Software Inc., a vendor of RFID and GPS tracking solutions. “Companies dealing with assets that have strict regulations and compliance issues associated with them can use an RFID-driven solution to keep detailed records of asset movements, condition, maintenance, and other attributes.” Panja gives the example of an oil, gas, and mining company that leverages a combination of technologies, including bar codes, RFID, and GPS, to track hydraulic hoses in the field to monitor their condition and automate the replacement ordering process. Doing so, the company is enhancing operational efficiencies and ensuring equipment integrity and availability.
What Is Your RFID Threshold?
Utilities, large construction companies, military organizations, and government agencies that track thousands of assets have all extracted significant cost and time savings from RFID technology. But, is the technology appropriate for everyone, even small companies with, say, only a few dozen assets to track?
“It really depends on the number of items that are being managed and how long the maintenance or compliance process takes,” says Hurliman. “If you have 100 items and there is no rigid maintenance schedule, or it doesn’t matter if the count is off by 5%, then there’s no reason to consider a high-tech option. But, if your organization is spending significant time and labor to accurately fulfill maintenance processes or comply with certain regulations, then RFID can provide significant value.”
It all comes down to the “cost of the cure versus the cost of the pain,” says Bennett. “The smaller the operation, the fewer number of people needed to support it.” However, there comes a point when the addition of one more piece of equipment makes a manual process unfeasible. That, Bennett says, creates the threshold for a company to turn to RFID.
Coté says any company considering RFID should go through a checklist of requirements before making a decision. “Think through the processes and physical steps you will have to perform to gather your data, identify your products, and easily track them through end of life,” he says. Some companies may conclude a bar code solution is enough, but increasingly the need for RFID is there, especially when you consider uses beyond asset identification and tracking. Bar codes, reminds Coté, cannot tell you location or transmit data on temperature, humidity, vibrations, and light sensing — all of which may come into play with certain types of field equipment.