The tag was designed to help car companies institute a more nimble manufacturing system in which vehicles and their components can be made to order in a short period of time. That requires flexibility in the assembly lines, as each vehicle or component may need to be different, while at the same time, it is crucial to track parts or vehicles in order to ensure that mistakes are not made.
Many in the automotive industry had adopted systems that used passive high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz RFID tags to track items through the manufacturing and assembly processes, because HF tags can be read reliably in the presence of metal, and they feature a larger user memory than UHF RFID tags.
User memory is important in the automotive industry, in which data tends to be stored on a tag rather than on software running on a server. That's because the parts often move from one facility—or even one continent—to another, and not every company working with the part can access the same server. In addition, Nabrotzky cites the need for automotive manufacturing to never become delayed. "If the [Internet] network goes down," he says, "they still want to make cars."
HF tags, while reliable and high-memory, have such a short read range that either employees must manually bring a reader directly in front of the tags as they move through the manufacturing line, or robotics must be put in place to bring that reader within read range. In either case, that process can disrupt the manufacturing flow.
With more customized requests from customers, the manufacturing and assembly process is not as linear. One component may go in one direction, while another might go in another, and since the readers require such a short read range, the flexibility to move that assembly line while still reading tags isn't always there.
An Adept 850 tag made from Qstar-2A, comes with 64 kilobits of user memory, and offers a read range of up to 8.5 meters (28 feet) and a write range of up 4 meters (13 feet).
The Adept 850 is intended to be readable and writeable from a distance, so that a carrier can be moved around different areas of a facility and its tag can still be interrogated and encoded automatically. It is also intended to be used globally, since many users could have operations on multiple continents with differing UHF frequencies. To achieve this, the tag has a cross-polarization antenna feature to make it useable at different UHF frequencies. Rather than offering a broad range from 860 to 960 MHz, the tag comes with two antennas, one on each side, that are each dedicated to a specific frequency requirement. One antenna can respond to a 916 MHz transmission in North America, while another, on the other side of the tag, can respond to 860 MHz, the frequency commonly used in Europe and Asia. Users would then either install readers that can capture transmissions from both sides of the tag, or position their interrogators and tags so that the readers are oriented to receive the right frequency response from the tag.
In addition to having 64 kilobits of user memory, the tag supports a 240-bit Electronic Product Code (EPC), thanks to its Qstar-2A chip, provided by Quanray Electronics. However, Nabrotzky declines to describe exactly how the long read range is accomplished with the on-metal tag.
Working with Ford during the Adept 850's development, Omni-ID designed a tag that could be attached to metal carriers for transporting engine blocks through the manufacturing process as hoses are attached, pistons are installed or manifolds are connected. The Adept 850 stores a unique ID number, along with any information that may be written to the tag as the engine is assembled. In this way, the automotive company could read the tag to learn what kind of engine it is, based on its manufacturing steps, as well as prevent mistakes from being made (such as skipping a step).
The new tag is also being used by an automotive manufacturer to track transmissions through the manufacturing process at one site, and assembly into vehicles at another. Carriers, each of which has an Adept 850 tag attached to it, hold 10 transmissions. In this case, data about how the 10 transmissions on that carrier were made is stored directly on the carrier's tag during each step of the process.
The carrier then accompanies the transmissions to a separate facility that assembles the vehicles. Readers capture each carrier tag's ID number and related data at each point during assembly, and can verify what kind of transmission it is, and that it is being put in the correct vehicle.
The tag was put into use at the engine plant in late fall 2014, and by the automotive manufacturer for transmission tracking during the first quarter of this year.
According to Nabrotzky, the tags will soon be used for other projects as well, and companies are now ordering samples to get a start with the tags. Businesses in the energy industry have also expressed interest in what the tag could do for enabling the tracking of inspections and repair to pipes or pumps in the field. In these cases, HF tags are inconvenient since they can be hard to locate or reach by personnel in the field (they are often in a difficult-to-access location, or are covered by snow, ice or mud).
Omni-ID plans to build a variation of the Adept 850 specifically for this use case, since it would need to be more ruggedized, and likely not made of ceramic, but rather metal.