The Fourth Industrial Revolution – or Industry 4.0 – is all about product customisation and speedy fulfillment. As Zebra’s Chief Technology Officer Tom Bianculli explained in his TED Salon keynote presentation about ‘The On-Demand Economy:’
‘The expectation is out there that we can get everything we want and we can get it right now.’
Yet, many manufacturers are finding it difficult to meet that expectation. Why? Because the efficiency demands placed on manufacturers during the First, Second and even Third Industrial Revolutions (less than 20 years ago) pale in comparison to what manufacturers are facing right now.
Offering multiple product models or configurations (aka SKUs) isn’t enough to satisfy customers’ appetite for personalisation anymore. Globally, an individualistic culture has taken hold. We pride ourselves on being unique and different. We want every aspect of our lives, from our clothes to our cars, to represent who we are as individuals – what we like as individuals.
The management consultancy Deloitte refers to this as ‘The Era of Mass Personalisation’, in which, through their purchases, shoppers are not just satisfying their needs, but also seeking a means of self-expression. The hunger for customised, bespoke models seems unlikely to abate.
As such, the idea of limited series car models, each with a dedicated production line has changed. Car manufacturers today and tomorrow, will produce hybrid, electric, highly automated and autonomous models, each with many potential permutations responding to individual consumer choices.
This requirement for flexibility means the factory will use ‘Tech-Lines’ instead of a traditional manufacturing assembly line. These are driverless robot transport platforms which will take vehicles-in-embryo to whichever process site or workstation is required next, requirements which might be very different for the different vehicles in production at any one time. A parallel set of robotic procedures and transports will ensure all necessary parts and components are delivered to workstations as needed.
A digitally driven, highly automated process for picking and delivering components to the right place at the right time is at the heart of Industry 4.0, the oncoming wave of manufacturing change regarded as a standard-bearer in the automotive industry. These innovations and changes will touch every current and future car factory adapting to the 21st Century.
That is precisely why manufacturers, who were notably resistant to marking their raw materials and finished products with a ‘universal’ code in the early days of barcoding, are now the ones calling for supply chain standardisation on an RFID tagging system.
Auto Manufacturers are Now in the Driver’s Seat, Dictating Track and Trace Technology Adoption
As my colleague Jan ‘Honza’ Flodrman explained in his most recent blog, an AIDC movement is happening right now in the automotive supply chain in Europe. Hundreds of automotive suppliers are being asked – even mandated – by global auto manufacturers such as Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and others to place an RFID tag on the individual components they ship to factories for installation as well as the load carriers used to transport the components.
Vehicle customisation has become the new production standard in this century, and manufacturers have been evaluating ways to adapt while still meeting efficiency and safety standards. As proven by initiatives such as Factory 56, RFID provides an economical way to automate multiple inbound logistics and intralogistics workflows and, in essence, reinvent the production line and larger-scale supply chain operations.
It also allows auto manufacturers to elevate the customer experience starting at the factory – not the dealership. For example, consumers like you and I can now literally see the progress of Mercedes-Benz vehicles being produced at Factory 56 thanks to the combination of connected technologies being utilised to track parts, worker actions and productivity – including RFID, 5G, real-time locationing systems and more. Even better, car buyers may soon have the ability to make last-minute customisations, such as the wheel style, while the vehicle is still at the factory. (This is explained further at the 2:00-minute mark in this video.)
Honza perhaps summed up the current situation best when he said that RFID tags (and RFID solutions, holistically) are the basis of the digitalisation that is quickly defining the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
That’s because RFID does more than just digitally transform items and procedures that were historically just mechanical. It protects operational efficiencies and agility while uniquely providing external visibility into internal operations.
‘Reducing the Friction’ of the On-Demand Economy with RFID
Mass diversification introduces many risks to manufacturers. For one, there’s the potential that the efficiencies of mass production – the very efficiencies that made items like cars affordable and customisable in the first place, way back in the First Industrial Revolution – could be lost. Then there’s the possibility that bending to customers’ ever-changing demands – implementing flexible, endlessly adaptable production and supply chain systems, might impact price and productivity advantages created by the unyielding, uniform production lines that have been in place for centuries.
In his TED presentation about Industry 4.0, Tom Bianculli talked about how critical it has become for supply chain organisations – whether a retailer or manufacturer/supplier – to reduce the friction associated with delivering highly-personalised services to customers. In order to deliver new conveniences to customers, such as vehicle customisation, you have to inject new ‘conveniences’ into your operations. For manufacturers, RFID becomes that source of ‘convenience’ by giving them a way to automate and expedite key processes as on-demand operations become more complex.
By requiring suppliers to mark raw materials and vehicle components with RFID tags in addition to the standard barcode, automotive manufacturers are taking back control of their production processes, even as they program more individualised orders into assembly-line systems in highly automated factories.
For example, the operational oversight provided by overhead systems constantly tracking and tracing RFID tags will give automotive manufacturers the confidence that the right parts are being picked for each personalised order, delivered to the production line at precisely the right time (key to Just in Time manufacturing) and then installed properly in the right vehicle. Being able to simultaneously direct the installation of parts and inspect the work helps to mitigate errors that can be costly in the future in the form of customer rejections or recalls.
Assessing the ‘Pros’ and Potential of RFID Applications in Automotive Supply Chains
As my colleague Honza briefly touched on in his blog post, RFID tags possess several key advantages over previous labelling technologies that make them ideal for more automated Industry 4.0 supply chain processes:
- RFID tags tend to be more accurately identified than barcodes, especially from a distance. They can also be extremely durable, assuming you choose the right RFID tag for your application and material to which it will be applied (i.e. on-metal), a high-quality label, the right RFID inlay and a reliably-performing RFID label printer.
- RFID does not require line-of-sight or a light source for tags to be read, a dramatic advantage over previous technologies, such as barcodes. A reader can discover what’s in a box’s entire contents, without opening it, or pinpoint a specific item in an area containing hundreds of diverse components. A vehicle being built can be digitally tracked during its production process, enabling workers to make the right decisions by understanding exactly, in real time, its history and next requirements.
- RFID tagging can also operate across large areas, integrating factory zones into a seamless IoT system that transmits data to and from back-end systems to accurately track the location of items. For example, a delivery’s contents can be automatically identified by fixed RFID readers that are installed overhead or on the loading dock upon arrival and directed to the right area, without human intervention. Any item within the read range – inside or outside the four walls – can be located, retrieved and delivered where it needs to be, considerably reducing lost and miscategorised items.
Warning: Don’t Discount the Potential Consequences of ‘Discounted RFID Pricing’
Once you place an RFID tag on an automotive component, it can become easy to adapt cars, tools and workers to market changes and individual consumer demands. It can also become easy for both manufacturers and suppliers to reduce downtime and wastage.
On the flip side, placing the wrong type of RFID tag on a certain vehicle component or prioritising cost over quality when selecting RFID tags (or other solution components) can cause a production line to come to a halt. The lack of human involvement in contactless RFID systems means that there’s no way to know if an item is properly marked with an RFID tag and the tag is just failing or if the supplier failed to mark the item at all.
Consider this scenario: an auto manufacturer using a no-scan RFID system to expedite inbound material accountability is quickly alerted that certain components scheduled to arrive with this shipment are missing. If a Just in Time manufacturing model is being employed, and a component isn’t on site and ready for delivery to the production line, then production stops and the supplier receives a call (and likely a fine) for making such a disruptive mistake. Now, it is very possible that there is an RFID tag in place as required, but it is not readable for some reason. Either way, the supplier and manufacturer suffer the financial consequences and frustration.
Remember: an RFID label has to remain readable for the life of the product to which it is affixed. If that’s an automobile part, that life could span decades of wear and tear, exposure to road grime and oil and dust and water and…well, you get the point. It also has to be readable even when affixed to a metal component or sewn into a seat cushion, while on the move along a production line and even while packed into a carton at the bottom of a pallet.
In other words, the RFID label must be readable from a distance and into the distant future. That’s a tall order. Not all RFID labels are cut out for the task, even if they are marketed for ‘marking’ requirements in automotive manufacturing environments.
That’s why Zebra has taken great care (and a bit longer than other AIDC technology providers) to bring its RFID solutions to market.
While many RFID solution providers spent the last five years pushing manufacturers to use their low-cost labels, printer and more in factories being refitted for Industry 4.0 automation, Zebra paused to more thoroughly assess the AIDC needs of automotive manufacturers. We wanted to ensure that our RFID labels and printers would fully satisfy the requirements placed on those hundreds of European suppliers (and our other customers around the world) the first day they hit the market. We know that RFID systems have become the single point of failure that can bring down an entire supply chain operation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. More importantly, we know that RFID systems are the key to improving operational efficiency and agility. Their performance matters to your performance.
Need Help Identifying the Right RFID Solution for Your Automotive Parts or Packaging?
I highly recommend you schedule time to consult with a Zebra solutions engineers or partner who specialises in RFID technologies for automotive manufacturing applications – even if you’re already buying from another RFID supplier. Let our team review your RFID labelling requirements with fresh eyes and recommend the right RFID labels/tags, printers, ribbons and more for manufacturers’ new RFID applications and your budget. Even if you are just comparison shopping for peace of mind, our team can confirm if the Zebra Certified Supplies you would need (i.e. Silverline on-metal RFID labels) are compatible with the printer you may already have in your factory. They’ll also ensure you have selected the right RFID inlay and have the right printer ribbon to produce quality RFID labels to protect your reputation with manufacturers and maximise your return on investment (ROI).
You can learn more about Zebra’s full lineup of RFID certified supplies, printers, readers and more on our website or contact our team to find out how Zebra can fulfill your specific RFID solution requirements.
We also recommend you check out these additional RFID-specific resources as you’re evaluating (or re-evaluating) your solution options: