Manufacturing show to spotlight wireless

Wireless technologies -- from RFID to 802.11 -- as well as supply chain management and machine-to-machine communications will be among the top IT issues at the National Manufacturing Week show in the US this week.

The conference, which has everything from the latest industrial lubricants to assembly line robots, will also feature over 100 IT -- and network-focused exhibitors, including Oracle, Microsoft and Verizon, and many specialized makers of industrial Ethernet and plant control network gear and software, such as Control Chief, Lantronix and National Instruments.

IT professionals at manufacturing companies say the potential value and deployment complexities of RFID will be a major theme at the show. Pressure from government agencies and big retailers such as Wal-Mart are forcing businesses to streamline their product inventory with RFID. At the same time, some forward-thinking manufacturers are looking at the technology as a competitive advantage.

"We assume long term that RFID will be in our supply chain," says Alan Wyne, CIO of Rollpak, a manufacturer of industrial trash can liners, based in Goshen, Ind. "It will reinvent how we'll manage and track and see our inventory. Although the industry we supply is not always on the cutting edge, we want to get ahead of the curve on this."

Wyne, who will present a session on RFID at the conference, says his company began looking at RFID not because of any mandate from suppliers or customers. Rather, he wants to get the technology ready and running on the network at Rollpak before this demand surfaces.

"We could wait until customers say we have to have [RFID], then drop hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay someone to put it in quickly," Wyne says. "What we're doing instead is taking about a US$6,000-investment, buying some equipment and playing with it, and getting it to the point where we have a system in place that's ready to go - whether it's from customer demand or used as a competitive advantage."

Rollpak is already beyond the testing phase with RFID, as it uses tags to track warehouse inventory in its warehouses, replacing barcode scanning. RFID scanners are tied to the Ethernet/IP network in warehouses and feed data into a centralized ERP system, which processes the inventory figures with custom-written scripts.

Industry watchers say there is great potential benefit for RFID and other network technologies that tie together physical manufacturing processes and the movement of goods into back-end monitoring and accounting systems. But manufactures must demonstrate the ultimate dollar-savings before hooking up plant equipment with IP addresses, or canvassing a factory with WLAN or RFID readers.

"I'm a bit more skeptical about the benefits of RFID," as just a stand-alone technology, says Thilo Koslowski, a research vice president with Gartner who tracks IT in manufacturing.

"What needs to happen before you leverage the potential of RFID is you must change the business first; you have to change the way you communicate with suppliers, and have a real-time supply chain in place before RFID provides substantial value that will justify the investment."

This could involve installing ERP software and more powerful servers to handle the massive amounts of real-time data produced by a large RFID network. Automated electronic communications links also need to exist among suppliers, manufacturers and customers in order to get larger benefits, Koslowski says.

Besides bringing pieces of inventory or palates of product online through RFID, manufacturers are also plugging crucial production machinery into the network to monitor health and performance, according to Nick Hayes, a partner with the FiveTwelve Group, a Milwaukee-based consultancy. This machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology will be the subject of round-table hosted by Hayes at the show.

"Many manufactures are rushing towards predictive maintenance and enabling machinery with Ethernet and wireless and sensors," says Hayes. The goal is to feed performance data on a machine into software that can predict the next time it will fail, or have alerts relayed to other systems that can react - such a placing a service call, or shutting down the equipment.

The downside to this technology would be in network-enabling the wrong equipment, or not setting up back-end applications and processes to handle the data produced by sensors and interpret it meaningfully.

"A [manufacturer] might say they liked it the old way," when human beings with experience and a keen ear could tell when a machine was in trouble, Hayes says. "They may not like all this data being produced because they don't know what to do with it; process change and event planning needs to go into any addition of intelligence on a machine, otherwise, it's just wasted money."

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