RTLS Reshaping Post-Pandemic Manufacturing
You may have heard of Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) but many heads of industry are still ignorant to their benefits. As we head into 2023, it is becoming increasingly apparent that RTLS is a standard bearer for the Industry 4.0 revolution. Not only are these systems making a huge variety of manufacturing operations more efficient than ever, but they are counteracting the supply and logistics problems brought about by the global pandemic. In short, RTLS is industry’s new best friend.
What is RTLS?
RTLS has existed in one form or another for over twenty years – and many would trace their origins back to the 1970s and the NASA moon missions. Since IoT devices began to proliferate in 2017, RTLS has seen a surge in uptake, particularly in the automotive, aerospace, and transit industries. The ability of these systems to crunch large amounts of data and create visual representations of real production lines and industrial spaces, means that oversight of complex operations can be simplified. Predictive analytics can search for problems in operations before they arise, and processes that once required manual labour can now be automated. They are even making workspaces safer by tracking employees’ locations within hazardous environments. So how do they do this?
How RTLS works
To create a functioning RTLS you need three things: tags, sensors, and software. By tagging key assets within a manufacturing environment (including tools, machines, vehicles, stock, and people) you gather data on the precise position of these asset through the use of specialized sensors. These tags and sensors then relay this information to a data hub, either onsite or in the cloud, where the data is processed and visualized by (often) customizable software. However, there are many different types of RTLS system, which make use of different tag, sensor, and radio signal types. Some are better suited to complex manufacturing environments than others.
Types of Sensor/Tag Systems
RFID – Perhaps the best known and simplest type of tracking system. RFID tags are cost effective and simple to use but they are ‘passive’ and usually require manual scanning. The data produced is rarely in ‘real-time’ and will usually fail to pinpoint exact locations of assets.
UWB (Ultra-wideband) – This is a newer technology that makes use of special radio waves that avoid the interference associated with Bluetooth and Wi-fi signals. Perfect for complex industrial environments, UWB tags and sensors can often pinpoint assets to centimetre-accuracy and can even track assets in three dimensions. While these systems can be more expensive than other options, they can offer an impressive level of data, allowing for sophisticated production forecasting and an array of automation options. For example, in the automotive industry UWB RTLS systems are being used to automate the calibration of tools when they come into close proximity of specific vehicles. This process saves man hours spent manually scanning barcodes and calibrating tools, it also removes chances of human error.
BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) & Wi-fi – Bluetooth is well known to most people, and the Bluetooth one uses on their phones can be used within BLE RTLS systems (think, for tracking employees moving between zones in a factory setting). Often making use of Wi-fi systems already present in an industrial environment, BLE can be a cost-effective way of tracking assets, and it has a number of cost saving uses, but it lacks the precision of UWB. Bluetooth and Wi-fi can also suffer from interference problems, causing issues with data reliability.
GPS – GPS systems are well known and have been extremely useful in various outdoor industries (such as in the surveying industry) but GPS has always had trouble in indoor settings due to its reliance on satellites. RTK GPS systems have done a lot to improve GPS positioning accuracy recently, but their main applications remain outdoors. Some top RTLS companies will offer a combination of RTK GPS and UWB within one RTLS, so that assets moving between indoor and outdoor environments can be seamlessly tracked, for example, when products leave a factory and move to a transit yard where they are loaded onto trucks. The RTLS can then coordinate the deployment and return of these trucks, ensuring each truck is in the right loading bay at the right time with the right personnel.
RTLS in Industry
To provide a better overview of how RTLS is currently improving processes across different manufacturing environments, below are some examples of the most common RTLS uses in the Automotive and Aerospace industries.
Reducing assembly time is a major way in which RTLS benefits the automotive industry. By eliminating errors, expensive repair and rework processes can be avoided and warranty costs can be lowered. By digitizing all the manual and moving parts of a vehicle assembly line, the increasingly complex production of vehicles (often including cars customized for each individual purchaser) can be simplified. Barcode scanners are no longer needed. Wireless tools can utilize digital tethers, tracking their whereabouts, notifying relevant parties when they need maintenance, and calibrating them automatically when necessary. Locating all WIP becomes simple in a data-smart factory.
The real-time tracking of aircraft assemblies including all tooling, kits, and parts can help streamline often complex and costly processes, giving planes more time in the air. Assemblies will move between different workspaces, being tracked at all times, triggering updates to business systems, ensuring that the right people and tools are ready to work in the right places. Worker safety can also be simplified with items like hardhats and googles being tracked and accounted for, while many of the maintenance checks carried out periodically can now be completed using visual data, reducing unnecessary checks altogether.
RTLS is a big topic, and it is likely to become an even bigger talking point in 2023.
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