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How Can RFID Complement Your Automation Efforts?

Radio frequency identification (RFID) applications help people track everything from cars to livestock. However, as automation has become more prevalent in recent years, industry leaders have also explored practical and beneficial ways to combine technologies. RFID automation often helps people meet multiple needs while giving them high accuracy and output methods.

Here are some examples of how companies might use RFID applications to make automation projects even more successful.

Using RFID Automation Can Locate Lost or Hidden Items

In one fascinating example of what’s possible, MIT researchers created a robotic system that can locate lost things even if they are buried in a pile. Their prototype, called the RFusion, utilizes RFID tags and machine learning algorithms. It also works with the help of a radio frequency antenna and a camera.

The setup includes a robotic arm that takes information from the tags and uses it to go to the item’s exact location. It can then move anything on top of the desired piece, pick it up and verify it retrieved the right thing. RFusion achieved a 96% success rate in finding objects placed in piles during testing.

This innovation uses a fully integrated system, so it can work in any environment. People on the project team said there is a growing need for robots that can retrieve items arranged in piles. The potential use cases range from sorting through warehouse orders before fulfilment to selecting the right parts to assist on a car assembly line.

The researchers’ plans include making RFusion work faster and more smoothly. Those characteristics would make it even better suited for industrial settings. This device may also have household applications, such as helping someone perform daily tasks. However, the current version isn’t robust enough for that yet.

Combining Automation and RFID Applications Reduces Errors

Regardless of a company’s industry, it’s highly likely that one of its goals is to minimize mistakes. Succeeding with that goal can strengthen the bottom line while supporting other priorities, such as safety and productivity. RFID automation efforts can take numerous forms when one of the aims is to slash error rates.

In one case, an original equipment manufacturer sought to boost assembly line capacity and efficiency while reducing mistakes. The company met those goals by having a provider design a miniature pallet system to move components through each processing phase. Each one had a built-in RFID chip that kept a component’s assembly, testing and inspection records.

This approach solved issues with placement errors and eliminated the need for operator intervention. It also enabled output at three times the original capacity while reducing the workforce by seven members.

RFID applications can even prevent potentially fatal errors when combined with automation. Decision-makers at a Canadian hospital wanted to reduce mistakes occurring during medication tray replenishment. They did so with an automated system based on RFID technology. The leaders estimate that the system will stop more than 2,500 drug-related mistakes annually.

Each medication container has an RFID tag, and the system automatically scans them and generates a list of products to replenish due to patient consumption, expiration or other matters. Another automated scan happens after replenishment to ensure everything matches. Each ray can have up to 138 drugs. It used to take workers eight-and-a-half minutes to check one, and now, they can do it in about four.

Supporting Better Traceability With RFID Automation

People in many industries use RFID technology to track an item’s movement, whether throughout a facility or within a supply chain. Corporate leaders often find that automating traceability saves time and gives more accurate results.

Scott Boatwright, the chief restaurant officer with the Chipotle restaurant chain, said, "RFID labels transform inventory management into an automatic, digital function that optimizes restaurant operations and gives our Restaurant Support Centers access to inventory data in real-time.” That’s vital, especially considering the company purchased more than 35 million pounds of locally grown produce in 2021.

Chipotle executives also envision that this system will help them respond more quickly to any concerns related to food safety or quality. It will allow for better visibility of aspects like expiration dates while saving time for staff members and suppliers.

Improved traceability was also prioritized at Italy’s Milan Malpensa Airport, where an RFID automation solution for baggage handling has been implemented for many years. It’s a fully mechanized system that does not require employees to perform manual encoding tasks.

The airport no longer uses the traditional barcode system, and staff members report that replacing it with RFID has allowed achieving 100% read rates within the luggage-processing system. Additionally, airport employees became more efficient while realizing better transparency.

Empowering Machine Tool Operators

Many RFID applications aim to make things easier for those who interact with them. The benefits are often even more evident when people bring automation into the equation.

Some of these combined effects make things easier for CNC operators. Products can measure real-time statistics for things like motor power and strain, then alert operators that the tool they’re using may break soon. However, some company leaders have explored using RFID automation to remove the need for people to input preset tool data into the machine control system.

One product, ToolConnect, uses a high-frequency RFID reader to gather the data and automatically send it to the machine. The previous system required operators to enter the information via a keyboard during the tool-loading phase. However, this step was time-consuming, and people might make mistakes.

Some CNC machine types also enable ToolConnect to automatically index to the proper magazine position before cutting begins. That feature streamlines the overall process. Leaders at companies who use ToolConnect reported that it helped operators focus more on the quality of output rather than worrying that a data entry mistake might force them to discard an expensive part due to breakage.

RFID Automation Can Streamline Operations

These RFID applications show that many pair well with automation. Companies thinking about taking inspiration from these examples should start by considering the biggest challenges currently present in their work. They can then explore whether RFID is an option for bringing improvements and whether they could make further gains with automation.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing articles for the tech and industrial sectors. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily at
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