NGF EUROPE Limited, situated in St Helens, Merseyside, operates at the forefront of the manufacture and marketing of specialised glass products. Formerly owned by Pilkington Glass, they became a subsidiary of the Nippon Sheet Glass Company of Japan in 1991 producing specialist glass cord products for automotive and industrial applications.
Glass cord is mainly used within the automotive industry for the reinforcement of synchronous drive belts – the main application is for the engine timing belt used to drive the overhead camshaft system. NGF EUROPE is the largest supplier in the world of glass fibre cord.
Together with their subsidiary NGF CANADA Limited, NGF EUROPE also market Glass Flake products manufactured by their Japanese parent company. Glass Flake is mainly used as a filler/reinforcement to strengthen and prevent the warping of plastics; and is also mixed with liquid protective coatings to provide corrosion resistance. In addition sub-micron coated glass flakes are sold for applications as diverse as inks and cosmetics.
However despite their strong presence within the automotive market, NGFE constantly face an industry of intense competition and pressures to reduce the costs within their supply chain. In recent years RFID had become one of the most talked about subjects in the automotive industry and NGFE conducted a thorough appraisal of the technology in order to determine how it could be utilised to transform key operational activities.
NGF EUROPE realised the potential impact that RFID could have on their organisation and appointed Peter Lai, Manufacturing Development Technician to lead the project to introduce this technology, Peter explains; “NGFE’s main business driver throughout this project was to ensure 100 per cent accuracy in everything we ship to our customers."
Alistair Poole, Marketing Manager at NGFE views the technology as a “key product and service enhancement in terms of helping our customers meet the ever increasing demands from global automotive manufacturers for improved traceability and mistake proofing”.
One of the main challenges that faced NGFE was incorrect labelling. When the bobbins containing the manufactured glass cord were packed for shipping, normal barcodes were rendered unreadable, potentially resulting in incorrectly labelled products. Peter continues, “RFID technology has allowed us to retain an accurate vision of our product after its protective wrapping has been applied ensuring that we deliver the right item, first time, every time”.
NGFE had also been struggling with poor read rates. In the past, poor read rates have been estimated to have cost NGFE in excess of £25,000 per annum, a cost that has been eliminated since the implementation of RFID. As more of NGFE’s customers move over to RFID, NGFE will realise further savings, the removal of the second serial number barcode leaving only the RFID tag will cut costs by a further £18,500 per annum.
Having built a solid business case for the use of RFID, NGFE commenced sourcing and developing a system specially honed for use in their factory in St Helens. In order to support the new system NGFE had to source new labels, printers and scanning systems. The requirement for a label that was highly customised, small enough to fit onto the plastic spools yet large enough to incorporate a barcode was one that raised many issues. Working together with UK and Germany based RFID label specialists, Inotec, NGFE finally managed to produce a high quality label capable of storing more data than ever before.
The next step was to purchase a new scanning system. The previous scanning system was sourced externally and didn’t provide the flexibility to make changes often required of them by law. Any changes that needed to be made were expensive and extremely time consuming to implement.
NGFE chose the Atlanta 8000 Series by TouchStar Ltd to fulfil all their scanning requirements with software being written in-house. The Atlanta handheld met NGFE’s criteria of a rugged Windows-based mobile computer that provided the flexibility of both barcode and RFID scanning within the same device. The Atlanta CE.NET terminal with colour screen was chosen for its excellent ergonomics, small footprint, light weight and balance, supported by an unrivalled customer support and maintenance package.
NGFE successfully implemented their RFID system into their warehouse operation. The system, designed by Peter Lai, Stephen Barriball and Bob Tinsley of NGF EUROPE completed its integration in December 2006. The technology has been incorporated into various processes throughout the manufacture of NGF EUROPE’s glass cord products, including general warehousing and packing areas. Production Process
Operators will have retrieved a production schedule or plan which tells them what material they should be making. After retrieving the product specification and instructions, using TouchStar’s Atlanta 8000 series handheld scanner, the operator will have to validate his/her identity and will then scan the work instruction sheet which will validate the material coming into the production area ensuring that the correct product is manufactured. This provides NGF with perfect tracking traceability whilst at the same time eliminating manufacturing errors.
The RFID labels will be printed with each label containing a totally unique product code and product number which is then attached to the spool. The operator will choose the menu on their handheld terminal to start the product visibility process, thereafter scanning the serial number on the spool to the machine location. If a customer fault arises they are able to trace back to exact batches and machine locations.
After the glass cord has been successfully manufactured the spools are sent directly to the warehouse for packing. The bobbins are weighed and individually packed in black wrap in an automated process. The bobbins then pass through RFID readers which verify its identity and a label is then produced and applied to the outside of the spool. After packing, the operator will carry out a number of cross verification checks, firstly to check the product is ready to be shipped and secondly, the operator has printed the correct pallet label. It is this process that NGF can be 100% confident that every product will have the correct labelling. Previously if an operator was to intervene and remove a spool then the process could go out of synchronisation and spools be incorrectly labelled.
Spools that have to be reworked due to damage or manufacturing error are sent to the rewind area. Previously, NGF manually controlled this process by reprinting labels. This created a significant amount of risk of label duplication and mis-labelling, it was the operator’s responsibility to ensure that the correct label was on the correct spool and that all information was transferred accurately to the new spools. A new process was developed using the handheld scanners which recorded any faults and would hold the bobbin in production. Faulty bobbins that reached the warehouse were rendered unpackable and not released until an operator had given authorisation. This system provides NGF with better control of any internal problems. All bobbins now have to go to the rework area. Bobbins are scanned onto the machines and new labels produced, thereby eliminating duplications and mis-labelling. Essentially they are transferring data from one label in the database into another, the old bobbin that has been rewound will be rendered useless and the new bobbin can be packed and shipped to their customers.
A Successful Outcome
Having successfully implemented their RFID system within their St Helens operation, NGFE have earned recognition for their achievements at the highest of levels. Having been nominated as a finalist at the RFID’s Annual Breakthrough Awards in London, NGFE were runners up after competing alongside the world’s corporate IT elite, including IBM, SAP, Oracle and Oyster.
The flexibility delivered by the new system has allowed them to extend the use into alternative areas. The TouchStar Atlanta handheld is also used for training personnel in production processes. The majority of process training needs to be carried out ‘on the job’, this can prove to be extremely difficult as the production environment is extremely noisy. As a result, all processes carried out during production have now been filmed and incorporated onto the Atlanta handheld. Operators are able to choose from menus on the terminal for a process on which they need more information, videos and step by step instructions guide the operator through.
Looking to the future NGFE plan to continue driving their high customer focus by providing them with even more detailed data. Plans to write detailed specifications and test results onto the RFID tag would enable the bobbins to travel with their own test certification, enabling customers to implement and demonstrate improved control in their processes at the point of product use. In turn, NGFE is also looking to provide customers with access to detailed process data via RFID tags and also to enable customers to write information to the RFID labels to improve feedback to NGFE via their environmentally efficient bobbin return system.
Furthermore, NGFE also has plans to integrate their scanning system into their ERP system to enable “point and shoot” transactions Alongside this they also are looking into a proof of delivery application extending from production through to their end customer.
The NGFE organisation was excited by the potential that RFID represented with regard to possible process improvements. That potential has been fully realised and some spectacular operational improvements secured. The implementation of RFID technology has focused to-date on the NGF EUROPE operation. However, further rollouts will be happen during 2008 for both their parent company in Japan and subsidiary company in Canada.