Not heard of real-time tracking and location as a production management tool? Well, more and more manufacturers are turning to it, not only for asset management, but also for improved visibility and control over their production processes. Aston Martin, Airbus, BMW, GM, Boeing, Honda and Caterpillar are just some of its users.
And all are using solutions provided by real-time location systems provider Ubisense, an international operation employing almost 130 people, turning over £17.7 million and whose UK headquarters is in Cambridge. The company successfully floated on London's AIM stock market in June, with its stock rising from 180p to 212.50p in one hour, an indication of further expansion of the technology's use.
At root, Ubisense's technology can be considered as transponders (location tags on the item to be tracked), receivers (sensors to receive position information) and software (to manage, display or act on information). So what are its users getting from the technology's application? Aston Martin first. Apart from the production line where the vehicles are built and assembled, Aston Martin operates an offline facility – 'off-tracks' – where final inspection is carried out. As a prestigious brand with an unrelenting focus on quality, this is a particularly important part of its processes. "Off-tracks is rigorous, consumes several days and can be extremely complex, keeping track of numerous vehicles at any one time, while juggling shipment dates etc," states Ubisense's VP of technology Adrian Jennings.
Image: Aston Martin uses real time tracking and location to keep tabs on 'off tracks' progress
"Aston Martin uses our location solution to monitor their off-track processes in real time, ensuring they have precise information for each step of what are multiple steps in total, at the same time monitoring how long each step takes, with alerts given where things deviate from plan – such as part of the process going out of sequence or a vehicle staying in an area longer than it should,"he adds. For Aston Martin, Ubisense's bespoke solution has become the factory's eyes, automatically streamlining and managing operations, where previously manual checks would have been the order of the day. "A key benefit for Aston Martin is that it generates its own reports from the historical records accumulated by our software, in order to single out any deviations and so fine tune and hone its processes over time. In terms of the business, that brings quality improvements, time savings and increased throughput," explains Mr Jennings.
Meanwhile, at BMW, a Ubisense RFID-based real-time location system (RTLS) is used at the automotive manufacturer's assembly plant in Regensburg, Germany. Again, it is all about enabling pinpoint accuracy across the production line: matching the cars being assembled with the correct tools needed to perform the job, thereby automating a system to provide each vehicle with custom assembly information, based on the car's vehicle identification number (VIN). The RTLS enables the automobile manufacturer to track the location of each car and tool within 50 cm throughout the 1.7 km of the assembly line.
As BMW's customers typically order specific customised cars, each vehicle is assembled according to a client's individual requirements, with specific interiors, seats and engine parts for each order. Providing custom-installation instructions to assembly-line operators has proved challenging in the past. Each station along the assembly line, for instance, is afforded approximately 50 seconds to carry out its instructions before the next car takes that vehicle's place. Operators must know quickly which part is being installed on each car, as well as apply the appropriate torque for that particular installation – when employing a nutrunner, for example, to tighten bolts.
The company had tested or tried multiple solutions, including passive and active RFID, infrared and bar-coding, to help operators swiftly determine which type of assembly each car required as it arrived on the assembly line. Until the introduction of the Ubisense system, BMW had settled on a solution in which bar-coded labels were attached to a car's bonnet. Operators would employ a handheld bar-code scanner to read each label's serial number, which was sent to the manufacturer's back-end system, linked to the car's VIN and assembly requirements.
The operator would then put the scanner down and pick up the station's tool, which would receive instructions from a software application provided by German software firm IBS and be automatically programmed to carry out the necessary task correctly – such as operating at a defined torque for applying a specific fastening. This system, however, wasted valuable production time, since the scanning operation was taking up to 6 secs at each of 150 tools being used on each of 1,000 vehicles produced each day.
ASSEMBLY CONTROL SYSTEM
About four years ago, BMW began discussing a high reliability, ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID solution with Ubisense, which, working with IBS, developed the BMW Assembly Control System (ACS), which combines IBS' tool-controlling software with Ubisense's RTLS technology to help the car manufacturer locate and identify vehicles and torque tools along the entire production line. The system, fully deployed in January 2009 and called LIS/TAS, involves tracking the industrial tools used on the final assembly line and loading the correct program into the tool automatically, based on the specific vehicle being worked upon. It enables BMW to identify each vehicle as it moves through the assembly line and to recognise accurately not only its location, but all of the tools required for use.
Extreme reliability was necessary in determining the locations, since each vehicle on the line is situated no more than a metre behind the one before it, while up to five tools are often used on a single vehicle at the same time.
Andreas Lehner, project director, BMW Regensberg, comments: "The tool assistance system delivered by Ubisense and IBS has enabled us to eliminate the barcode scan operation. All the project objectives have been met on time and within the planned budget. From the standpoint of value creation, the project is a complete success."
Turning to Airbus, some two and a half years ago it selected Ubisense to complement the world's largest RFID-enabled manufacturing initiative with a high precision real-time location system (RTLS), providing greater transparency and improved monitoring of distributed production facilities. The company currently comprises 12 specialised manufacturing plants in Europe, their activities controlled via four centralised 'Centres of Excellence'. This all presents a complex production logistics challenge.
The Airbus fleet's flagship A380 is proof of how Airbus successfully meets this challenge: last year alone, 18 of these 400-plus seat wide-body airliners were delivered to customers. The superjet's components are manufactured mainly at the sites in Hamburg (Germany), Saint-Nazaire (France) and Broughton (north Wales – responsible for assembling the wings for all Airbus civil aircraft), from where they are shipped by sea or land to the final assembly line in Toulouse, France. For each aircraft, six preassembled sections are delivered on special trucks: cockpit, centre and aft fuselage, empennage and wing units. The A380 is manufactured according to just-in-time principles, making it indispensable for the distributed production stages to be constantly monitored – hence Ubisense. "The use case is to track large aircraft sections and have a more real-time view of our industrial flows," explains Carlo K. Nizam, head of the VCV division (responsible for process tracking and RFID) at Airbus. The web-based Ubisense VIP (Visible Industrial Process) application, based on Ubisense RTLS, now ensures that the current production status of components in Germany, France and Great Britain can be tracked by staff in Toulouse at any time. Furthermore, the system provides valuable analysis tools that help to evaluate and optimise progressively Airbus' assembly processes. Whereas previously data on the progress of A380 components in assembly had to be recorded manually, the Ubisense location system, based on ultra-wideband (UWB) radio technology, now provides the relevant information automatically and in real time. The solution is accurate down to 30 cm and little short of 100% reliable.
Image: Airbus keeps track of A380 progress remotely and internationally
At the Hamburg, Saint-Nazaire and Broughton sites, Ubisense sensors were installed to cover the relevant assembly areas and connected to a LAN. In the system, zones are assigned to the specific steps that components pass through during assembly, so their actual manufacturing status can be precisely determined. Components are identified using small transmitters known as tags, which are attached to them before the assembly process begins. The tags transmit unique ID numbers that are automatically linked to the corresponding components in the system. They generate positioning signals that are captured by sensor units, allowing the component's location to be determined and tracked accurately throughout all stages of production.
The Ubisense VIP downstream software logs data, as well as analysing and visualising the tracking information in real time, comparing progress against plan. Via web access, any authorised employee can thus view the current production status of the A380's components – either at the assembly plant or at the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse.
There is a choice of analysis tools that can be selected to suit different requirements. A real-time map, for instance, shows a component's current location in the assembly line of a production facility. Thanks to powerful search functions, components can be tracked, based on their ID number or other search criteria. The panorama feature provides a real-time overview of all work-in-progress components and of the production status at all associated aircraft manufacturing sites, even indicating expected delivery timescales.
Standstills or other failures in the manufacturing process trigger an instant visual signal or email notification to the staff in charge. This allows for greater transparency and better communication, ensuring a maximum efficiency of manufacturing processes and improved planning reliability. Furthermore, detailed reports – both for work-in-progress items and for defined time periods in the past – are available to analyse and compare various aspects of production data against plan. Production processes can thus be systematically monitored and optimised. "Real-time information can help us better support increased production rates quicker and more accurately," adds Airbus' Mr Nizam.
Ubisense RTLS has thus, he points out, become a crucial element of the Airbus Business Radar system. It was for this reason that Airbus signed a 10-year agreement with Ubisense last year, which will see the solution deployed to a variety of projects. "If it works as we anticipate," offers Mr Nizam, "we will certainly consider scaling it across other aircraft programmes."
Additional online information
 Who can benefit?
 What's in it for smaller manufacturers?
 The market opportunity for RTLS
Who can benefit?
Exactly what kinds of business advantage can real-time tracking and location deliver to UK manufacturers? Undoubtedly, they enable manufacturers to build better, using smarter processes, with highly reliable, real-time visibility of the exact location of critical assets delivering a new level of process monitoring and control.
Ubisense's solutions, for example, provide automatic tool control, using software-defined activation zones, automatic alerts when manufacturing progress deviates from plan and process analysis over time to support continuous improvement. The result is improved productivity through optimised processes, faster throughput, thanks to the elimination of manual identification tasks, rapid line reconfiguration through software-defined work cells and improved quality, as a result of automatic error-proofing.
Smaller manufacturers have not been overlooked, with Ubisense's 'Asset Manager' being a more affordable, but still function-rich, version of the all bells and whistles bigger brother. "Beyond tracking things, it provides alerts, warning where there are bottlenecks or where something has gone astray, while also delivering reports from which areas of concern can be pinpointed," explains Ubisense's VP of technology, Adrian Jennings.
"It's an entry-point solution that gets to most people's itch when they don't always know where things are. Globally, we have some fairly modest installations where smaller solutions are required, so this is not just about the larger manufacturers. That said, we also have big companies using this to manage specific parts of their operations."
Asset Manager tracks and monitors tagged assets across defined spaces. It is a web-based application that can locate and monitor tagged assets and report the location and history of asset movement within defined spaces.
Ubisense installs a sensor network throughout the area where assets will be monitored. All sensors are standard IP-based devices connected using standard commercially-available network equipment, which are monitored and tuned in real-time.
Location tags are attached to assets and are registered with the system, using a quick barcode scan. Tagged assets are automatically located, and the locations are recorded and processed by Asset Manager.
Asset Manager can then be used to locate the tagged assets via an enterprise-wide, browser-based user interface, and can report and display the history of asset movement and containment within defined areas, reducing the time taken to locate important assets and providing detailed analysis on asset movement over time. It can also generate email alerts when a given asset enters or exits a given space.
In brief, it can :
• Rapidly locate assets within defined spaces across multiple sites
• Graphically display the historical movement of assets over a given time period
• Reliably record and display space containment information of an asset
• Generate reports based on asset location and history
• View and receive e-mail alerts when assets enter or exit defined spaces
• Filter assets using data from your current MES or ERP system
The market opportunity for Ubisense
According to Ubisense's chief executive, Richard Green: "By 2018, the market for RTLS is anticipated to be worth over $2.7 billion and we are well positioned to be a significant player in that market. Our RTLS have been proven in industrial environments and shown to improve efficiency by reducing both operating costs and errors in manufacturing.
"We have a significant opportunity to leverage our existing customer relationships on a global scale. Our relationship with Atlas Copco for example has created a new generation of intelligent, location-aware tools that will help manufacturers around the world to achieve significant improvements on their production lines."
Atlas Copco launched the Tool Location System (TLS), based on a Ubisense solution, at Motek Fair in Stuttgart in September last year. The new product has been designed to assist customers using Atlas Copco tools to ensure that the right fixing is being tightened to the correct tension for a particular product.
Image: The right tool in the right place, at the right setting - Atlas Tools