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VW's Auto City Runs on RFID

November 07th, 2005 Case Studies - Automotive
Volkswagen Group builds more than 5 million vehicles annually at production sites around the world, the majority of which are distributed through dealerships. Each year, however, an average of 130,000 cars made for the European market are picked up by auto enthusiasts, or by consumers seeking to save about €450 on delivery costs.

Each day, as many as 700 buyers come to Wolfsburg, Germany, to pick up their vehicles at Volkswagen's Autostadt (Auto City) theme park, complete with exhibits about technology, the environment, automobiles and mobility.

Volkswagen's Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany, where customers can pick up their new Golfs and other VW models.

Consequently, getting the right car to its proper owner at the designated appointment time is a mammoth task. Complicating matters, each car has a different set of predelivery tasks that must be performed. Some must be de-waxed to remove the layer of wax that protects the paint job and keeps a new car looking new, while others must be tanked up with gasoline. Still others must be equipped with a mobile phone or a freebie umbrella. To get the job done in a cost-effective manner, VW turned to radio frequency identification.

In 2000, Volkswagen Group, which owns the Volkswagen, Audi, SEAT, Lamborghini, Škoda, Bentley and Bugatti brands, began allowing select car pickups directly at its Wolfsburg factory, where the Volkswagen Golf and other VW models are produced. The company had designed and built the Autostadt to mark the World Expo held in nearby Hanover the same year, and pickups were made possible through the facilities of the Auto City.

The Autostadt, which has become Germany's second most-visited theme park behind Europa Park, offers visitors interactive exhibits, tours, test-drives, driver training, films and eateries. The park even has miniature VW Beetles that children ages 5 to 11 can drive on a specially designed course with its own traffic lights and signs. Before the Autostadt was built, only some 100 to 150 buyers, such as employees, picked up their vehicles on-site each day. Predelivery tasks were tracked with pen and paper as drivers moved vehicles to various stations where these tasks were carried out.

To coincide with the opening of the Autostadt and the introduction of the pickup service, Volkswagen implemented a system using active RFID tags to track more than 10,000 vehicles (mostly Volkswagen models) stored in adjacent holding lots. The goal is to make sure each automobile goes through its prescribed predelivery tasks and quality controls in a timely fashion. Implemented in 2000, the system has been expanded steadily ever since, according to Ralf Michael, the project manager for Identec Solutions, which provided the RFID system. Within one year, according to Identec, Volkswagen recouped the cost of its RFID investment via labor savings and higher productivity.
Volkswagen considered a variety of different technologies to help it achieve its objective, opting for an active RFID system operating at 868 MHz because it offered the lowest up-front and ongoing costs. Volkswagen performed pilot tests with bar codes but decided against such a system because scanning the bar-coded labels involved too much manual work. The company also tested a passive RFID solution, but chose against that because the read range was too short and, again, required too much manual work.

Because of the short range, VW employees would have to get out of a test van carrying a reader (interrogator) and walk directly to a vehicle for proper identification. Or, in such cases as the cleaning line, a worker would have to approach each vehicle with a reader to get a positive ID. In a third test, Volkswagen looked at an active RFID system operating at 2.45 GHz. This system generally performed well, but had problems reading when the test van carrying the interrogator was driven at higher speeds past tagged cars in the test holding lots.

i-PORT Linux-based fixed interrogators, developed by Identec, are used throughout the Volkswagen plant.

The automaker also considered a GPS-based system, but ruled it out after tests showed that the price of a GPS-based tag was too high, the battery life was too low and the ongoing costs of data transmission (via GSM telecommunications networks) were too high. Finally, Volkswagen considered a real-time locating system (RTLS), but ultimately rejected it because, like the GPS system, it was too expensive.

Identec Solutions equipped Volkswagen with its Intelligent Long Range (ILR) wireless technology. The system uses an active tag, the i-Q8, which carries 32 kilobytes of data. The i-Q8 tag is encased in a 7-inch-long plastic housing topped with a hook similar to that of a coat hanger, which can hang on a car's rear-view mirror. Branded with a Volkswagen logo, the tag features a small LED that flashes when it comes within range of a reader. Because it uses little power, the I-Q8 can be used for about six years before the non-replaceable battery runs out.

Here's how the system works: After a car is unloaded from a truck or train bringing in vehicles from plants around the world—or, in the case of a Golf, Bora, Jetta or Tuoron model, after it arrives straight from the adjacent factory—a worker drives the car to the entrance to one of Volkswagen's three holding lots. The driver then presents a lot attendant with a piece of paper detailing the car's ID number and the various predelivery tasks that must be performed.
Each car goes through an average of four to five predelivery stations specified via bar-coded instructions printed on the form. The attendant scans the bar-coded data into the system and writes it to an RFID tag, which is hung on the car's rear-view mirror. The driver is assigned a row in which to park the car, rear first. Individual parking spaces are not numbered. After dropping the car off, he walks to a middle lane and is picked up by a holding-lot shuttle bus.

The reading and writing of tags is accomplished on a Linux-based fixed interrogator Identec calls the i-PORT. This reader uses standard TCP/IP protocols and communicates with VW's computer network through an Ethernet or wireless connection. All interrogators in this particular application are fixed.

The i-PORT interrogators read and write data to RFID tags hanging from cars' rear-view windows.

Up to three days before an owner is scheduled to pick up his or her car, a VW worker retrieves it from the lot to begin predelivery tasks. The car's ID number is sent via a wireless LAN to an on-board computer mounted in a shuttle bus in the holding lot. The onboard computer tells the bus's driver and i-PORT, connected to the onboard computer via a cable, which ID numbers to search for in specific rows. Atop of the bus, two i-PORT antennas extend like long, comical ears from either side of the windshield. As the bus drives past the parked cars, the interrogator reads their tags.

The first i-PORTs used in the application had a range of 30 meters, but later versions read at up to 100 meters. Without replacing the hardware, Identec updated the older i-PORTs for VW so they, too, could read at that range. When the van nears the proper vehicle, the driver's onboard computer beeps, and the tag hanging on the target vehicle's rear-view mirror lights up.

The system is calibrated so the driver has time to brake and stop just in front of the car to be retrieved. At that point, a worker jumps from the van, gets in the car (all keys are left in the vehicles) and drives the car to the manned gate of the holding lot, where an attendant reads the tag. Only at this point does the driver learn which of the 20 predelivery stations the car will go to first.
Each predelivery station is equipped with an I-PORT, so the location of a car is updated automatically. Four or five people sitting at a mission-control-style console can oversee the movement of vehicles among the stations. This overview is helpful if managers have to intervene to get a car ready for pickup quicker than usual, or to improve the efficiency of the entire process.

When the car is ready for delivery, it is driven to an ILR-enabled gate, where the dimensions of the wheelbase are read from the tag. This information is used to adjust the tracks automatically so the car can be loaded onto a transporting platform after the gate opens. The vehicle is conveyed to a 48-meter-high glass tower that holds 400 cars for storage and viewing by Autostadt visitors. The cars are retrieved from the tower without the help of drivers. Everything is automated and computerized, including the elevators that shuttle the cars up and down. RFID tags stay in the cars but are used only to tell the automated transport system details about the car before it goes into the system, and when it exits the transporting platform.

To locate and retrieve a new car from a holding lot, a worker drives a van equipped with an RFID interrogator.

At present, 36 i-PORT interrogators and about 12,000 tags are in use. Although the holding lots contain about 10,000 vehicles at any given time, extra tags are needed for when the cars cycle through the predelivery processes. The system is capable of delivering 800 cars a day. If two additional delivery towers were to be built, an estimated total of 1,600 cars could be delivered daily.

Although the system is tried and tested, problems still can occur from time to time. "Sometimes, a driver takes a vehicle to the wrong spot, creating a backlog at various work stations. Or, a transponder may fall to the floorboard of the vehicle after being knocked down by a driver or worker and become unreadable when an interrogator has a short range," says Michael.

In some stations, readers are specifically set to a short range because of "environmental" restrictions. For example, on the cleaning line, two cars may enter the belt at one time on two different lanes. Readers interrogate at short range in order to identify only the cars in a specific lane. Finally, if a car has a special front windshield with an embedded defroster much like that of a rear windshield, its tag cannot be read quickly, so interrogators must be positioned to the side of a vehicle.
Identec Solutions claims the system has a 99.94 percent readability rate, meaning 99 percent of all attempts to read a tag are successful, and a 98 percent readability rate when considering potential human errors. If an i-PORT fails to read a tag at a station, the information will be read at the next stop."Volkswagen calls it a self-healing system," Michael says.

By using the system, Volkswagen has significantly reduced vehicle delivery speed, improving it by as much as four times. It can intervene if a car is behind schedule via the system's work-in-progress tracking and automatic status update. Sometimes, cars get behind schedule when unexpected repairs must be made—for instance, if a broken part must be replaced. In this case, the RFID system keeps track of the cars as they are being repaired.

By using Identec interrogators to read RFID tags placed in its cars, Volkswagen has greatly improved its predelivery process.

Altogether, the tracking system has reportedly simplified Volkswagen's predelivery process by eliminating the pen and paper method. It also enables Volkswagen to offer the on-site delivery service with as few as 600 employees (washing, waxing, tanking up, etc.). The system has improved the company's quality-control process by electronically gathering information on any required last-minute repairs. Not only did Volkswagen recoup the cost of its RFID investment within one year due to labor savings and higher productivity, it also increased the available space on its holding lot by 20 percent by moving cars through the system faster.

Gerald Gosemann, who oversees Volkswagen's entire predelivery process, would like to use the system to improve productivity. Ideally, he could manage the location of cars via the software by sending vehicles to those stations with excess capacity rather than focusing on getting all the cars ready at specific delivery times.

The next improvement planned for the RFID system is to add "traffic-light" management software utilizing red, yellow and green coding to alert managers about capacity and the progress of individual cars. Currently, managers access this data in spreadsheet form. In-house software expert Christoph Pelich designed the software to map out the location of a car visually.
Green means the station has capacity available, while orange signals that the station is nearly full. Red means the predelivery process is filled up, allowing a manager to make quick decisions to reroute a vehicle to get maximum efficiency from each predelivery station.

The software collects the capacity information from the RFID system. The computers then match a record of each station's capacity with the real-time actual capacity, and managers are able to see the status. Volkswagen is designing this upgrade with support from Identec Solutions and expects to implement it by the end of the first quarter in 2006.

When workers finish prepping a vehicle, the RFID-enabled system conveys it to a 48-meter-high tower that holds 400 cars.

Finally, VW expects to install the same RFID-based tracking system at its plants in South Africa and Spain. These plants prepare cars for delivery to dealers, however, rather than end customers.

Because of its success with the RFID-enabled predelivery tracking system, Volkswagen ran a test last year on Identec Solutions' technology to track containers holding stamped parts such as hoods and doors. The test results were positive, and VW is now rolling out the container-management system at its plants in Europe.

The system will help the car manufacturer create visibility with regard to container flow in plants and between plants that are hundreds of kilometers apart. It will also help the company optimize the availability of the containers.