Since the early 1990s, companies have used "closed-loop" radio frequency identification effortssystems set up within a single business operationto track the whereabouts of everything from railcars to cows. The most profitable such ventures tackle specific weaknesses in the supply chain. Club Car Inc., an Augusta, Ga.-based maker of golf cars and utility vehicles, is an apt example.
Company executives were convinced for some time that their assembly line was underproductive, costing them hundreds of thousands a year on well-received products that sold out faster than Club Car could produce them. They knew the bottleneck in the supply chain was in their factories, but they couldn't come up with an alternative approach. This year, as Club Car planned to debut a new high-end car, called the Precedent, management and IT executives took the gamble of scuttling their traditional manual assembly line and creating an automated operation employing RFID technology.
"I'd been reading about RFID for a few years, but couldn't see how it fit into our operations," says Alan Oester, the company's vice president of information technologies. "Now we had an opportunity to do something different, entirely from scratch. We were motivated, because it was extremely important for us to increase output by as much as we could for a vehicle that we felt would be extremely popular."
The process began by permanently installing an active RFID tag on every Precedent assembly carriage. At each stop on the assembly line, the carriage passes by a reader that sends the car's identifying data to a proprietary manufacturing execution system. The software determines which custom options should be installed in the vehicle and which machine requirements, such as torque, must be completed. In some cases, it even sends the information to automated factory tools to do the job. Before the car leaves the post, workers make sure the tasks for that location have been completed properly.
It used to be that printed work instructions were sent with each chassis to be read by operators who manually set up the jobs at every stop on the line. With a savings of at least a few seconds at each workstation, Club Car has cut the time to build the new Precedent golf cars from 88 minutes to about 45. That's a significant productivity improvement for a plant that is on schedule to produce about 100,000 vehicles this year, the majority of them Precedents.
"The RFID system has given us a couple of percent of capacity on a million-dollar assembly line for an expenditure well below $100,000," says Oester.