Wireless Revs Up Vehicle Production

RFID and other technologies help manufacturers slash millions from production costs.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 15, 2005

8 Min Read

InformationWeek 500 - AutomotiveWireless technology continues to make inroads on the factory floors of America's automotive manufacturing plants and their distributors' service desks, helping reduce the time it takes to complete complex tasks and saving companies millions of dollars in production costs.

Truck manufacturer Paccar Inc. is "exploiting the wireless world we now live in to make processes more efficient and effective, and to provide information at the point where it's needed," VP and CIO Janice Skredsvig says.

The company has begun placing active radio-frequency identification tags on all the chassis of its custom-built trucks as they're readied for assembly. RFID-tagged chassis move past strategically placed wireless readers, at a range of as much as 500 feet, communicating information about their whereabouts into custom-developed tracking software. Based on the information it receives, the software routes the chassis to the next stage in the assembly process. To avoid having metal objects on the factory floor interfere with the RFID signal, it's critical that workers align the readers properly with each chassis. It's a challenge, but the effort is worth it as the technology improves data accuracy and enhances product quality, Skredsvig says.

On its factory floor, General Motors Corp. has begun mounting wireless terminals on its material-delivery fork trucks. Truck operators get real-time updates for material requests to deliver vehicle parts to the production line in a just-in-time manner. GM contends that using a wireless fork truck makes its operators more responsive, so the company requires fewer overall employees to deliver materials to the production-line side.

Two other factory-floor wireless initiatives drive efficiencies at GM plants. The automated guided-vehicles system employs wireless connections to route a specific car to the next logical point in the assembly process. And a new application for PDAs gives team leaders up-to-the-second information on problems that need immediate attention. The carmaker uses the 802.11b/g standard for general-purpose wireless coverage and 802.11a for bandwidth-hungry apps. GM employs firewalls at each plant to secure wirelessly transmitted data.

Cutting the time it takes a technician to repair a vehicle is the goal behind a wireless pilot test at a JM Family Enterprises Inc. Toyota dealership. The company, which focuses on vehicle distribution and processing, finance, and warranty services and insurance, is testing a wireless headset with a flip-down screen called Nomad from Microvision Inc. Using retinal-scanning display technology, the tiny screen casts pages of an auto-repair manual directly onto the mechanic's retina. A touchpad worn on the belt allows the mechanic to change pages.

Technicians don't automatically take to words and images being projected onto their retinas, but they adjust in a short time, says Tom Holmes, JM Family's technology VP. He estimates the device should increase technician productivity by more than 30%. "Technicians don't have to stop work, put down their tools, and go to a computer to look up instructions in a manual," Holmes says. "They have it right there in front of them."

Illustration By Paul Watson

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  American Honda Motor Co. Inc.   American Suzuki Motor Corp. * Cummins Inc.   Dana Corp. * Delphi Corp.   Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co.   Federal-Mogul Corp.   Freightliner LLC * General Motors Corp.   International Truck & Engine Corp. * JM Family Enterprises Inc.   Metaldyne Corp.   Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. * Paccar Inc.   Reynolds & Reynolds   Rieter Automotive NA Inc.
* denotes a top 100 company

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