Taking the Guesswork Out of Logistics

Taking the Guesswork Out of Logistics

Manufacturers have to keep track of many different things at the same time to enhance the productivity of workers, from the movement of materials through shop-floor activities to product shipments. Trying to juggle all this efficiently is a constant challenge. But a new platform developed by HKU engineers is proving remarkably successful at the task and is also saving firms money.

The RFID-Enabled Real-time Ubiquitous Manufacturing Platform uses smart devices, such as RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and readers as well as smartphones, to keep track of all activities, so managers and operators can get an immediate picture of their operations.

"The entire factory is transparent because the data shows everything that is happening," said Professor George Huang of the Faculty of Engineering, who  has led the platform's development. "When things are transparent and traceable, managers can monitor progress and make better shop-floor decisions. There is also less misunderstanding and teamwork can be improved."

The technology has been in development since 2007, supported by numerous research grants, and it has been adopted by several large companies in the Pearl River Delta region and Zhejiang Province.

The benefits can be seen in the example of a major paint manufacturer that used the technology to solve a problem in which orders were being dispatched until the early hours of the morning during peak time, creating extra costs because truck drivers were paid to wait on standby. A major reason for the hold-up turned out to be a delay in getting the right colours available from the warehouse for paint mixing. The technology helped to plan and streamline production and logistics, so dispatches could be done several hours earlier than before the solution was used.

An air-conditioner manufacturer used the technology to replace paper-based production orders, where the paper saving alone justifies the investment in this technology solution within two years, not to mention other benefits. An unexpected benefit was that it also enabled the firm to respond more quickly when orders changed, because managers now knew exactly where all materials were after they left the warehouse.

The technology has also been used to track the number of jobs done by workers so as to calculate their bonuses and, more recently, to bring social benefits through its application by the Hong Kong Housing Authority to plan construction work on a housing estate.

Professor Huang and his team have filed several patents, and seen the growing use of the technology, which has opened up new paths of research. "The research and KE work mutually stimulated each other," he said.

Professor George Q. HUANG and team members in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering - Dr Ji FANG, Dr Ray Y. ZHONG, and Dr Zhi LI, received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2015 of the Faculty of Engineering for 'RFID-Enabled Real-Time Ubiquitous Manufacturing Platform'.