Automotive Foundry Uses RFID to Manage Plant Logistics

Automotive Foundry Uses RFID to Manage Plant Logistics

Forklifts are outfitted with passive RFID readers; electronic devices weigh the batches on board the trucks; and a real-time location system determines the location and orientation of each vehicle.

Ortrander Eisenhutte GmbH, an iron foundry in Brandenburg, Germany, had a logistics problem. The 120-year-old operation produces gray, ductile, and compacted graphite iron for automotive components, as well as thin-walled castings for residential stoves and heating systems, products that are machined and in some instances sufacefinished by galvanizing or powder coating — and business has been growing in the past several years.

A series of capital improvement projects in recent years has increased capacity to 35,000 metric tons/ year, chiefly in response to automotive market demand. One consequence of the expansion has been the problem of keeping track of all the material in production.

“We had to introduce new technology to improve on our manual processes, and to keep up with the growth,” explains Bernd Williams-Boock, CEO. “I had to know how many finished parts of each type vermicular iron had, and where to find them, so we could meet the customer shipment deadlines.”

The Fraunhofer ALI Centre in Cottbus, Germany, a part of an industrial research network for applied logistics and information systems, developed the concept of an intelligent fork-lift to meet the requirements. Fraunhofer ALI has over 50 research centers covering different aspects of science and technology, and “specializes in production logistics and the application of IT to provide innovative new solutions for logistics processes in manufacturing organizations.”

The system Franhofer developed for Ortrander is based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which relies on tags and transponders for storing and retrieving data.

RFID readers
RFID readers are placed on the forklift (above), and are read by transponders placed around the plant in logistical grid (below).
Logistics grid

The fork-lift is outfitted with a passive RFID reader for identifying batches of castings in production; an electronic weighing device that determines the weight of the containers (thus, the number of parts it contains); and a Ubisense real-time location system (RTLS) to determine the exact location and orientation of the truck. Ubisense systems are based on a scalable real-time location platform that is being deployed in “mission critical” applications around the world. The Ortrander installation also includes a truck-mounted HMI terminal, so the operator can verify the data collected and communicate with the back-end logistics system.

For Ortrander, the RTLS records where each container is placed in a logistical grid system, so that the truck operator can be directed there to retrieve it. Information on the status of the parts in the container also may be added, using the terminal. The location of the container provides additional information as to the location of the parts, and their progress in production. “This joint development in a Tier 1 manufacturing enterprise is second to none,” according Terry Phebey, v.p.-European Sales for Ubisense. “The material-flow solution developed by the Fraunhofer Institute, Ortrander, and the other partners, can be rolled out not only for other foundries but for any manufacturer looking for a more efficient production process.”

“At first, we were rather skeptical as to whether the environment might be too challenging for radio-based technologies to operate reliably,” commented Professor Uwe Meinberg, head of the Fraunhofer ALI in Cottbus. “In particular, we have been impressed with the performance of the Ubisense UWB location system, despite the fact that the facility consists of stacks of metal containers full of metal parts.”

“We can find our parts and know if we can meet customer shipment requirements now,” says Williams-Boock, “but we are not finished. With the real-time data being captured, we can optimize the maintenance of the fork-lifts, improve the availability of information upon shipment, and even reduce the risk of accidents in the plant.

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