Wireless success story: Land Rover complements trackside replenishment system with RFID-based vehicle location
An ongoing relationship with the codeveloper of an assembly track lineside parts-replenishment system has led to the rollout of a real-time vehicle locating system at Solihull, U.K.-based Land Rover —neatly leveraging an existing investment in wireless technology at the company’s 308-acre assembly plant.
Land Rover says it’s experiencing improved post-production processing of some 150,000 new vehicles annually.
Employing the same core technology from RFID and bar-code specialist Zebra Technologies subsidiary WhereNet Corp . as the existing parts-replenishment system, implementation time and costs were reduced, says Dave O’Reilly, Land Rover’s manager of manufacturing and purchasing IT. But rather than directing vehicle parts to the right point on the company’s assembly lines, though, the new solution locates, routes, and schedules finished vehicles through critical post-production processes.
Seek and find
“We used to spend a considerable amount of time searching our facility for specific vehicles,” says O’Reilly. “Now, not only is the precise location of all new vehicles always at our fingertips, but it’s possible to quickly locate groups of vehicles—such as all V8-engined cars destined for a particular region of the world.”
O’Reilly says information the system provides enables Land Rover to efficiently schedule vehicles through post-production vehicle preparation, quality assurance, and finishing activities—thus improving plant and driver plant utilization, as well as on-time dispatch to shipping port or dealer.
“The system automatically updates every four minutes the exact whereabouts of every vehicle on-site, giving us, in a single place, all the data we need to optimize work-in-process,” says O’Reilly.
|Dave O’Reilly, manager of manufacturing and purchasing IT, Land Rover, says a new assembly track lineside parts-replenishment system locates, routes, and schedules finished vehicles through critical post-production processes.|
The story really begins back in 2002, adds Gary Latham, WhereNet’s product line manager for flow applications. Looking around for a better way of getting vehicle parts to the right point on the assembly lines, Land Rover—owned by Ford Motor Company —saw promise in a system that had been jointly developed by Ford and Zebra, called Smart Call (since marketed by WhereNet under the Part Call brand).
The idea was simple: Whenever an assembly-line operator took the first component out of the last available lineside stillage or container, pressing a wireless-enabled lineside Smart Call button triggers the initiation of a replenishment activity—in Land Rover’s case, explains O’Reilly, printing a job ticket at a central “marketplace” in the parts storage facility at the Solihull plant.
The ticket holds the picking details of the part required, its location, the quantity needed, and to which station on the assembly lines it is to be taken. Picked up by a forklift truck driver as the ticket emerges from the printer, the lineside delivery is just minutes away from fulfillment.
“The big difference was that Land Rover wasn’t using the standard Ford systems that Smart Call was built to interface to,” recalls Latham. “Obviously, then, there were integration issues—but they weren’t‘show stoppers’.”
Latham adds that using the WhereNet-developed software development kit further aided integration.
On higher ground
The impact on inventory management and productivity has been significant, notes O’Reilly. “By keeping the minimal amount of material lineside, it makes it much easier to rebalance the line‘on the fly’, as there’s no excess inventory in the way—and the technology helps us to get higher levels of utilization from our materials handling resources.”
An innovation due soon will see those utilization levels significantly boosted. Instead of being printed at the central marketplace, the ticket will be “printed” to an RF terminal on the forklift truck, obviating the need to return to the marketplace to be allocated the next part replenishment job. “We should then be able to make use of the truck on the otherwise-empty return leg of the journey, too,” says O’Reilly.
Prompted by the forthcoming introduction of a new model, Land Rover began looking in late 2006 at ways of improving its vehicle location and post-production processing activities—quickly realizing that it had one of the key elements of WhereNet’s solution already installed. By temporarily attaching active RFID transmitters to new vehicles as they roll off the assembly line, their subsequent locations could be established through an infrastructure of 130 wireless location sensors, while their staging through the various post-production processes could be monitored through 50 magnetic exciters positioned at key process points.
Implemented during 2007, Land Rover has seen a complete return-on-investment in less than one year, notes O’Reilly. The WhereNet system yields several benefits, he adds, including reduced on-site dwell time of vehicles as a result of better management of their flow through post-production processes. And by dispatching cars more quickly into the delivery chain, Land Rover improved order-to-cash cycle time.