RFID technology reveals all its benefits when the physical world – as represented by SmartTags on all sorts of products – is joined to the digital world of business processes and their underlying business applications.
“The link between these two worlds is the operational middleware of the SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure offering,” says Tobias Götz, director of business development for RFID in Europe at SAP. “The offering couples virtual product information stored on RFID tags with the real world and links it to the logistics and production processes that are mapped in SAP ERP.” The RFID tags receive, store, and process the electronic data of various reading devices and tags in near-real time and automatically redirect it to back-end solutions with the SAP NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure (SAP NetWeaver XI) component.
SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure supports a variety of important processes, including goods receipt, goods issue, and the tracking of returnable transport items (RTIs).
RFID goes Kanban
The current release of SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure now maps RFID-supported Kanban processes by default. Kanban enables easy control of material and information flows in production because each process “grabs” the required material itself – the material is available in special Kanban containers. The containers run along with a Kanban cart that documents all the data needed for production, storage, procurement, and transport, such as item number, type and fill quantity of a container, work instructions, and quality data. SAP ERP maps the Kanban process in the Kanban dashboard.
Until now, visualization of the information stored in barcodes on the Kanban carts had to be manually scanned, which created entry errors in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. The RFID-supported Kanban procedure of SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure now automates these processes and creates a direct connection between the physical goods movement and its mapping in SAP ERP. In the new process, the Kanban containers are equipped with reusable tags that can be uniquely identified. They contain the name of the RFID Kanban cards and receive all the relevant information, just as the paper document that was used previously. Automated reading of data improves process security and lowers production costs.
The right container on the assembly line
Before an employee on the assembly line receives a full Kanban container, the container passes through a RFID gate equipped with an antenna or with sensors. The RFID tags on the container inform the reading device that the container is full. SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure transmits this information to SAP ERP with SAP NetWeaver XI. SAP ERP displays the status of the Kanban container during the production process with a green or red light. Because the container is full when the process starts, the display is set to green. Once an assembly line employee completes a production order and uses the parts in the Kanban container, the container goes to a collection point that is equipped with an RFID gate.
There the Kanban container informs SAP Auto-ID-Infrastructure that it is empty. This information also immediately flows into the ERP software, where the status of the container is set to “empty” and the display on the Kanban dashboard changes from green to red. SAP ERP immediately triggers a delivery schedule with the related vendor. This approach ensures that no more than the required number of parts are warehoused and that the Kanban containers arrive on the assembly line after being filled just in time and correctly. The RFID-supported process also ensures that every Kanban container is delivered to the correct assembly line, which limits delays or even stoppages in production because of missing or incorrectly delivered containers.
Tracking products uniquely
Kanban processes are only one area that RFID can make more efficient. With the SAP object event repository, SAP has significantly increased the options for use of the radio chips. Products and packaging units can now be uniquely tracked throughout the entire life cycle – from production to end consumer – with the product tracking and authentication (PTA) process. In the pharmaceutical, automobile, and consumer goods industries, the process helps prove the authenticity of medication, original parts, and high-value consumer goods and it helps uncover counterfeits.
The SAP object event repository collects and manages all the information stored on the RFID tags – information related to the manufacture, tracking, and identification of products. Installed at a manufacturer’s site, the SAP object event repository serves as a type of hub. Data from the local installations of SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure at manufacturers and RFID applications at partners flows into the repository. The SAP object event repository lies like a layer over SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure. That position enables all partners in the value chain network – vendors, manufacturers, and wholesalers – to access information relevant to production centrally. The repository is also available as a hosted service. Partners access the data by logging on over the Web.
The nested doll principle
The packaging process in the pharmaceutical industry is a good place for a possible PTA application scenario. The manufacturer equips packets of medications, each containing 20 tables of pain medication, with a uniquely identifiable number range, the electronic product code (EPC). The manufacturer adds 2D barcodes or RFID tabs that contain important information on the product’s history, such as date of manufacture and batch and item numbers, along with sensor data on temperature monitoring in cooling chains. Every 1,000 packets are combined into a packaging unit and bundled onto a pallet. The pallet also has an EPC and an RFID tag. SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure then transmits a combination of 1,000 product codes and one pallet code to the SAP object event repository. The corresponding XML data record is now available to the entire supply chain.
Pharmaceutical wholesalers are supplied by pallets, split the pallets into smaller units, and deliver the medication to various customers. For example, the wholesaler might send 100 packets to a pharmacy in New York, 300 to a pharmacy in Boston, and 127 to a pharmacy in Philadelphia. This information also flows into the SAP object event repository. If the business partner of the pharmaceutical company wants to know where its deliveries are at a given time and whether there are original products, the partner can search the SAP object event repository by EPC. The application redirects the stored information to the ERP back end of the business partner and stores the query. Queries do not duplicate the data, which is simply linked with the business objects in SAP ERP over a product history stored in the SAP object event repository. This approach directly links the identified product data to the information from the ERP solution. If the desired EPC is found in the SAP object event repository, the business partner’s ERP solution immediately displays which delivery is connected to a specific sales order. The business partner can then work on the process if needed.
Authenticity checks and search services
Similarly, the pharmaceutical manufacturer can check to see if the business partner repacked the medication into smaller units and where they were delivered. The manufacturer therefore knows if its medications reach end consumers over the intended sales channels. This transparency helps the manufacturer meet legal requirements and legal obligations to produce supporting documents. The manufacturer can also reliably and immediately answer questions about whether, when, and who produced, stored, transferred, and sold a product and if an original product is involved.
For Götz, that’s just the beginning. As he says, “We continue to develop RFID solutions and expand the application scenarios.” Future plans call for the ability to direct recalls with SAP object event repository and to execute strategic and tactical activities as part of promotion management. In a distributed landscape of SAP object event repositories, a discovery service that works much like a search engine is conceivable. For example, if the EPC of a medication’s packet is entered into a search screen, the service immediately returns all the locations where the EPC appears. That ability is a major step on the way to adaptive supply networks.