A Successful RFID Implement: Case Study of Custom Cupboards

Nov. 18, 2008
Using RFID Custom Cupboards increased throughput by 10%

Custom Cupboards has boosted the throughput of its total operation by about 10% and final inspection by nearly 50% in the last eight months with help of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

By tracking components with RFID tags and constantly feeding the data into workflow automation software, Custom Cupboards can determine how many parts may be waiting in front of a sanding operation or give instructions to quality assurance personnel at the end of the production line on how to double check that an order is properly fulfilled. The system even tells a CNC packaging machine how to make optimum-sized cardboard boxes for shipment of the finished products.

Custom Cupboard has a reputation for producing custom cabinetry at prices that compete successfully with standardized products, and pays for its competitive advantage by having to track a torrent of specialized components that winds its way daily through a 225,000-square-foot plant in Wichita, Kan. Just as a starting point, the company offers customers their choice of cabinets and furnishings in nine different woods, 120 door styles and 600 colors and finishes that together can create more than half a million product variations. And consumers still have the options of changing the width, height or depth of any cabinet with no up charge.

The future holds even more exciting possibilities, says Lance Johanson, the company's vice president of operations. By the end of the year, Custom Cupboards hopes to launch a work cell where robots using RFID information will build as many as 400 cabinet face frames daily. Employees will cut components for a cabinet, attach an RFID chip to one piece to identify the order, and then place all the pieces on a conveyor belt that feeds the robot. The robot reads the order and assembles the frame in less than two minutes, without assistance from human hands.

Stiles Machinery Inc., the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company that is supplying the RFID hardware and iConnect software to process the data, believes that Custom Cupboards is the largest and most advanced use of RFID for manufacturing wood products in the nation. The technology has been used for some time by industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace that work under compliance or traceability requirements, but it holds a lot of potential for woodworking companies, plastic injection molders and other manufacturers that fabricate non-metallic materials. RFID technology has limited application for products made largely of metal because the metallic content interferes with the transmission of radio waves.

To a great extent, RFID is bar coding on steroids. RFID chips offer a way to pack a lot of information onto a relatively small footprint on or inside the part, and they sidestep some of the drawbacks of bar coding that requires a person to find the bar code, physically scan the label and manually enter the information if the label is marred. RFID chips can be read at a distance and through material, even when products already are boxed for shipping. Liken it to the different ways that a retail shop can detect items. A bar-coded item needs to be oriented physically by a clerk and scanned with a light beam, while an item tagged with an RFID chip can be detected remotely when a person tries to leave a shop before having purchased the item.

A basic RFID detection system includes an RFID tag, unit to load information on the tag, an antenna that transmits a radio signal to excite the RFID tag and a second antenna to read the tag. Inexpensive RFID tags that cost from 15 to 30 cents apiece can hold up to 12 characters of information that make up the serial numbers of the orders -- not all the information that makes up the orders. Unlike bar codes, RFID tags can be reprogrammed at any stage of the manufacturing process to include different information. Manufacturers pay a premium for the technology's flexibility and remote sensing capabilities: a fully implemented RFID system costs at least five times as much as a bar code-based system.

The fact that RFID technology doesn't require a shop floor worker to orient and scan product greatly improves the accuracy and speed of data collection, Johanson said. But the data alone is virtually worthless without a method of analyzing and acting upon the information. Custom Cupboards started its implementation of RFID-based manufacturing by affixing tags that contain the serial numbers of the orders to cabinet frames. By calling up the serial numbers, quality assurance personnel are able to double check the orders -- color and finish, door style, cabinet size, hinge position, etc. -- against the products in front of them. The software even prompts employees on the proper method of how to inspect the items, standardizing the quality assurance procedures and greatly reducing the time invested in training new personnel.

Johanson said the workflow software and RFID data collection cut the time at final quality inspection in half.

Encouraged by success at the final inspection, the company has implemented RFID-triggered inspection activities at earlier milestone operations at the plant. Custom Cupboards Chief Information Officer Jason Harris said information gleaned from the RFID data allows his company to perform root cause analysis of rejections that is used extensively in continuous improvement activities, such as improved training of employees at mistake-prone operations. "It's amazing when you graph the data being collected by the RFID process," Harris said. "You can literally see your quality rejection trends going down, minutes spent per unit going down, and customer satisfaction going up."

In addition to quality improvement activities, RFID technology also can be used to track inventory as it is being carried throughout a plant. Stiles Machinery has successfully tested a system that uses hi-lo trucks to automatically read the RFID chips of the parts they are transporting, then transmits the location, number of parts and stage of completion of the parts to centralized data processing.

David Kurakazusampson is development supervisor for the software division of Stiles Machinery Inc, a supplier of advanced CNC equipment for panel processing, solid wood and related industries. www.stilesmachinery.com

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