time: 2015-05-12 15:05

When LIGNA, a leading tradeshow for the woodworking industry, opens its doors this week in Germany, it intends to bring some focus to radio frequency identification and how the sector can use the technology. This is the first year that the trade fair is including an RFID technology demonstration, known as the RFID Factory, to showcase RFID vendors and help educate the woodworking and furniture industries about the technology, says Christian Pfeiffer, LIGNA's director.

The RFID-enabled demo is being spearheaded by Abaco Informationssysteme GmbH, a systems integrator based in Löhne, Germany. Abaco offers software for furniture producers and also provides services for integrating software into RFID installations. A number of furniture companies are already using RFID to track goods within their own facilities, says Andrej Ermlich, Abaco's head of project management. During the past few years, however, Abaco has found that the furniture industry has begun examining how the RFID-based data could be shared with other members of the supply stream.

"The next logical step from getting your own 'intra' logistics in gear, via RFID solutions, is to include your suppliers," Ermlich says. He finds that some furniture companies are now encouraging their own suppliers to tag materials before shipping them, and are sharing RFID-based data with other members of the supply chain.

Abaco was launched in 1982 as an IBM sales partner for software. "Since our geographical region has a very high concentration of furniture companies," Ermlich says, "our main sales focus was predefined."

Since 2006, Abaco has shifted to RFID as its primary focus as a growing number of furniture companies have begun moving from RFID pilots to permanent rollouts. "In most cases," Ermlich reports, "our daily business included ID solutions of some kind, so RFID was basically the next step."

Woodworking companies are finding marked benefits from RFID technology, Abaco finds, by tracking work-in-progress and supplies, as well as finished products as they move to retailers and end users. Many furniture companies are using RFID for complete Web integration of information, thereby allowing customers or partners to view the history and location of a particular piece of furniture. Increasingly, they are also looking into integrating their RFID systems with smartphones and tablets, in order to enable truck drivers and retailers to track and trace the goods that they ship or receive.

In 2007, to share success stories with other furniture companies in Europe, Abaco developed its first RFID-enabled demo factory on a smaller scale, at a fair called ZOW, for furniture company suppliers. This year will be the first, however, at LIGNA.

According to Ermlich, the participants—approximately 16 companies are taking part in the RFID Factory demo at this year's LIGNA trade show—are focused entirely on solutions involving passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID tags. This is the predominant technology in furniture projects, he explains, "because in almost every case, there is a situation where bulk reading functionality is needed."

In general, Ermlich says, there are two common production models for the manufacture and sale of furniture in Germany. In one case, furniture companies provide high-volume products, mostly shipped on pallets, and typically not high-priced. In those cases the, he adds, logistics procedures are fairly easy to manage, and RFID provides limited value.

"The second production procedure is order-orientated," Ermlich states, "and often comes with completely built pieces of furniture which are not [palletized]." Customers typically place custom orders, often online, for a specific kind of furniture for their home, office or other location. "That makes the handling much more difficult. In this case, the potential for lost parts is significantly higher, and so are the costs for each individual error."

Companies filling the custom-based orders are the ones that benefit most from deploying RFID, Ermlich says, though he notes that all of Abaco's customers "are obviously looking for cost reduction through higher efficiency."

Most furniture companies are somewhere in the process of evolving from using a manual pen-and-paper process to track work-in-progress and inventory, to employing bar codes and then RFID. "You still come across companies, now and then, that track their logistic processes by pen and paper," Ermlich says. "In most companies, you find some sort of bar-code application today, but at certain points, bar-code scanning reaches its limit."

The shortcomings of bar codes, for instance, come into play when staff members must scan 2,500 bar-code labels daily to document the loading of trucks. The implementation of an RFID solution based on bulk reading enables the company to minimize the incidence of human errors and reduce costs.

For many companies, this has meant an evolution to reading RFID tags attached to furniture items via an RFID mobile device.

"The idea behind the RFID Factory is to show potential customers the RFID technology in the context of their own industry," Ermlich says. "The technology is best presented in the environment known to the visitor."

For that reason, the RFID Factory includes demonstrations of how RFID can be used during furniture coating or painting machines, in edge banding machines and for furniture logistics applications.

Logopak Systems, a German-based global provider of labeling machines, as well as fully integrated labeling systems, is demonstrating a machine module that uses RFID tags to identify furniture parts, while Venjakob is showing how a coating machine can utilize RFID to recognize the parts being coated, and to instruct the machine accordingly. Other RFID Factory participants include woodworking machinery company Homag Group, sensor company Balluff, industrial automation provider Fraunhofer-Anwendungszentrum and software firm Wanko Informationslogistik.

Logopak has recently released an RFID solution for the furniture industry in the form of the ATA, a machine that automatically embeds RFID tags into wooden furniture parts, according to Lars Thuring, the company's strategic development manager.

When custom furniture is being made, tracking the unique components that are assembled into the furniture, as well as the painting or staining required for each piece, can be complex. Many companies manage this process by applying bar-code labels to each piece, such as a shelf or leg. However, when it comes time to paint such pieces, their labels must be removed. In some cases, companies instruct their staff to remove the labels prior to painting, and to then return the labels once the coating is dry—a practice that can lead to lost or damaged labels.

Some companies are making the tracking process more efficient by embedding RFID tags into the wood components before they are painted or coated. Employees can then read each tag ID and identify details, such as the kind and color of paint that should be applied.

"The RFID tags can then be used throughout the manufacturing process," Thuring says, "and later in the supply chain." Logopak released its ATA machine this month, and expects field trials to soon follow.

"It was a very conscious move to make RFID Factory an integral part of LIGNA," Pfeiffer says. "RFID is one of the primary components needed in order to achieve efficiently networked manufacturing."

By showcasing products from companies like Logopak, Pfeifer says, the RFID Factory "takes the visitors from fresh felled timber on to wood processing and treatment, and to downstream processes, such as the supply of subcontracted components and actual manufacturing," and ultimately through the supply chain to the customer. This, he adds, illustrates the benefits of implementing RFID throughout the supply chain.

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