BRICK & CLAY RECORD: Smart Tracking

May 1, 2006
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Radio frequency identification (RFID) is helping brick manufacturers improve product tracking both in the plant and on the yard for better quality and inventory control.



From robotic setters and dehackers to precisely controlled drying and firing processes, some of today's most sophisticated manufacturing technologies are helping brick manufacturers become more competitive in the building industry. Recently, another advanced technology has begun making waves in this sector. Known as RFID (radio frequency identification), the technology uses radio waves and sensors to identify objects based on identification tags. Unlike bar code identification systems, RFID technology does not require line of sight to acquire and identify data, so it can track moving objects in less-than-ideal conditions, such as when moisture or dirt would obscure optical tags.

The technology itself is not new. Some sources trace RFID's origins as far back as the early 1920s, while others point to systems invented in the '60s and '70s as the first true RIFD devices. The use of RFID in tracking and access applications first appeared during the 1980s. Today, RFID is used in a variety of applications, from electronic toll collection and automatic payment systems to remote vehicle access and retail inventory tracking. However, the brick industry has had little use for RFID technology-until now.

A new RFID system* centered around high-temperature-resistant tags mounted on kiln cars is being used to automatically and efficiently track brick as it moves through various stages of the brick making process, from setting through dehacking. It allows operators to view in real time where products and kiln cars are located, and it allows manufacturers to plan and schedule production more effectively while capturing valuable data that can be used in quality control. The system can also trigger automatic changes in the manufacturing process; as tagged products reach a certain point in the process, sensors read the tags and communicate that information to other systems to initiate the required operations. Through these capabilities, the system is helping brick manufacturers take their automated systems to the next level.

*HackTrac Work in Progress (WIP), developed by Stark Solutions, Greenville, S.C.

Using cards to manually track the brick through the plant limited Palmetto Brick's response time to any process changes that were needed.

Making Adjustments

One of the first adopters of this new technology was Palmetto Brick Co. The company makes a variety of brick sizes, including modular, queen, oversized, utility, closure and pavers, with a number of different bodies and textures-268 different products in all-at its three plants in Cheraw, S.C. Palmetto Brick completely revamped its oldest plant at this location six years ago with highly automated Lingl systems. (The company now refers to this plant as "Lingl 1.") However, tracking the brick as it moved through the plant remained challenging.

"We had cards that represented each car of brick, and we would manually move those cards along a track on the wall as the kiln cars moved through the plant," explains Henry Moore, plant manager. "Since we run the kiln 24/7 with a variety of different products, we might need to start making some changes when the kiln operator isn't here-let's say a different brick enters the dryer, and we really need to adjust the dampers at 2 a.m. [to accommodate that new product]. With the manual system, we would have to wait until 8 a.m. the next day when the kiln operator got here to make those changes, so we were always running a little behind."

According to Moore, the company had been searching for a way to automate its kiln car tracking system but couldn't find anything that looked like it would meet the plant's needs. When construction on Palmetto's newest plant ("Lingl 3") began in 2004, kiln car tracking in the Lingl 1 plant took a back burner. Then, in 2005, Moore got a call from Lance Burnett of Stark Solutions, Greenville, S.C., asking if Moore would be interested in a system that could help Palmetto Brick track inventory in its brick yard.

"Lance came in and presented the system to us. Then he came back a little later and asked me if it would be an advantage to have the system track the kiln cars through the plant. We had some meetings and they sat down with us for a few hours at a time, explaining the system and showing us some slides. They provided training for our employees, and we had a sweet deal-if the system didn't work, we wouldn't have to pay for it," says Moore. "It was an easy decision."

High-temperature-resistant tags were installed under each of the 170 kiln cars in Palmetto Brick's Lingl 1 plant as part of the RFID system.

Improving Quality

Stark Solutions installed high-temperature- resistant tags in the form of small discs under each of the 170 kiln cars in

Palmetto Brick's Lingl 1 plant. According to Moore, the tags are expected to last about 15 years under the conditions experienced in the plant. Sensors were placed at key locations, such as at the entrance and exit ends of the dryer and kiln, to read the tags as they approach those areas. The entire system was installed without any downtime in the plant.

"The cars are marked electronically, so the system recognizes when a certain car gets to a certain spot in the kiln, for example, and you can program the system to automatically initiate the required change when the car reaches that location. It's all connected to a computer system that makes the adjustments," says Moore. "The real benefit is that we can make a number of small adjustments incrementally as they're needed, rather than one big adjustment 'after the fact.'"

While Palmetto Brick is using the system on a limited basis now, it eventually plans to add sensors throughout the plant to fully automate every stage of its operations. "We eventually plan to have the system set up so that the setting machine operator will punch in what type of brick is going on the car-for example, queen-size ballast-at the first part of the run. Every time a car with brick on it comes through, the system will automatically make changes based on that type of brick. When the product run changes, the operator will punch in the new information, and the system will make changes throughout the plant accordingly," says Moore.

Based on his experience with the RFID system, Moore eventually expects to install the technology in Palmetto Brick's other plants.

"It's hard to put a dollar figure on the payback, but with the ability to make more precise adjustments, we expect to see a significant improvement in the quality of our brick. Any time you change a brick run, the sooner you can get the conditions right as far as temperature or draft, or whatever you need to change, the less loss you're going to have. We haven't tracked the 'before and after' on our losses, but I know this system is going to help," he says.

The Work in Progress RFID system recognizes when a car containing a certain product run reaches a specific location in the plant and can automatically initiate any required process changes.

Other Applications

In addition to tracking products as they move through the plant, the new RFID system can also be used to help manufacturers track brick hacks (or "finished goods") on the yard. In fact, according to Burnett, that's where he sees the biggest advantages of the RFID technology.

"When the operator prints the placard that goes on each brick hack, the RFID system enters a code with product information on the 'smart' chip embedded in that placard. As the product comes out of packaging, a fixed reader automatically enters that product in inventory," explains Burnett.

Each time an order is sent to the yard, a wireless network beams the order to a forklift-mounted PC, which tells the forklift operator where to pick up the product. As the forklift approaches the brick hack, the sensor triggers either a green or red signal to let the operator know whether it's the correct hack. If the signal is green, the operator puts the hack on the forklift and presses a button that says "load," and the system automatically releases the product from inventory.

According to Burnett, the system provides a much higher level of efficiency in loading and prevents incorrect shipments. It also allows inventory updates in real time, rather than a day or two later.

The Finished Goods RFID system enables manufacturers to both automate the inventory process and properly track product inventory.

"When you improve efficiency on the yard, you have the opportunity to rationalize how many forklifts you use, and you greatly improve your inventory accuracy. With manual tracking, a product run of, say, Old Colonial, made on one day with a certain run number can easily be mixed up with Old Colonial brick made on a different day with a different run number. With the RFID system, you not only save on the shipment costs of having to resend that product, but you also improve customer satisfaction by getting orders right the first time around," he says.

The finished goods system is being installed at Lee Brick & Tile Co., Sanford, N.C., and is being investigated by other brick manufacturers. Burnett believes that both the in-plant and inventory tracking systems could have applications in broad-scale ceramic manufacturing as well.

"This technology mimics what many stores are doing on a retail level and brings it to the manufacturing side. We're trying to drive innovation in the brick and ceramic industry," he says.

Editor's note: RFID background information was obtained from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RFID .

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