The manufacturer of automotive electrical parts is working with Midtronics to introduce a system that uses radio frequency identification to guide workers through maintenance and diagnostic procedures, and records results on RFID tags attached to trucks and components.
Automotive electrical parts maker Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America (MEAA) has teamed up with battery-management company Midtronics to add RFID functionality to Midtronics' test equipment that customers of Mitsubishi Electric's parts could utilize to gain an automated electronic record of maintenance and repair to those components.
The system, known as MRFID—which the two companies announced this month—is not yet in use. However, the firms are currently in discussions with truck-fleet operators that are Midtronics customers and are using the MEAA starters and alternators, to see the RFID system deployed this year. But that is only the short-term plan, says Chris Page, Midtronics' senior business manager. In the long term, the company envisions a system in which electrical component manufacturers (such as Mitsubishi Electric) would attach or embed RFID tags on truck parts as they are made, and those tags would then be read by mechanics as they service trucks in which those parts are installed, sharing the data with fleet managers and truck and parts manufacturers and suppliers.
The system includes a single passive high-frequency (HF) RFID tag attached to a truck, to store the maintenance history of that vehicle's electrical system, as well as tags attached to Mitsubishi components. Tags attached to components would have sufficient memory to allow each tag to store a more detailed maintenance history of the individual component to which it was attached. Users of Midtronics' testing devices would utilize RFID readers provided by Midtronics (the specific reader manufacturer has yet to be determined) to read and write to the tag. To share all of the related data, the firm has also established the Battery Management Information System (BMIS) a software application, which would reside on a Web-based server hosted by Midtronics in order to share information regarding the maintenance of parts and vehicles with authorized parties. When it named the software, the company foresaw using RFID only to track vehicle batteries. However, the system's intended use has expanded. Instead of tracking just vehicle batteries, the technology will also be utilized to track the installation and testing of alternators and starters manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric, and to manage the process of returning malfunctioning alternators and starters to the manufacturer, to be repaired or rebuilt and replaced—in some cases, while the items are still under warranty.
"The primary purpose of the return tag is to communicate the test information along with the return of warranty parts," says Adam Warmack, Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America's account manager. Approximately one year ago, Warmack says, Midtronics first approached Mitsubishi Electric with the idea of adding RFID functionality to existing Midtronics testers, to be used with Mitsubishi Electric parts. "One of our main goals has been increasing our support to dealers to analyze and do maintenance on vehicle components," he explains. Dealers often return parts to MEAA that they claim are inoperable, but that are actually still functioning, having simply been misdiagnosed. As a result, MEAA winds up charging the dealership for these unnecessary repairs. The Midtronics tester is designed to address that problem, Warmack says, by providing mechanics who carry out the testing at dealerships or other repair locations with a series of procedures to perform when conducting maintenance of electrical components or diagnosing a vehicle's electrical problem. Without RFID, however, there is no way to be sure that service personnel actually follow the regimen recommended by the testing device before making a diagnosis.
With an RFID tag on a truck, as well as on a part sent back to Mitsubishi, an electronic record is maintained on the part's tag and in the BMIS server, including the date and time of the test, as well as the testing results, such as the number of amps being generated by an alternator. With the data stored on the tag, Mitsubishi could receive a failing part, read the tag's details and gain more information about the failure, in order to help determine the cause of its problems, as well as access warranty information electronically. With the RFID add-on to existing testers, Midtronics expects to offer two options. One would be a handheld reader that could be used to read a component's RFID tag, and to then send data recorded on that tag to the testing device, via a wireless connection. The testing device could also instruct the handheld to write data to the component's tag, including a description of the test being performed, using the same wireless method. The other option would be a handheld RFID reader with a wired connection to the tester.
To obtain the RFID functionality, users at dealerships or other maintenance providers would purchase the add-on solution from Midtronics—including the handheld reader and software to allow the linkage between the server on which the BMIS application is running and the testing device. They could then purchase 13.56 MHz HF tags with high user memory from one of a list of suppliers yet to be determined. The tags are likely to be compliant with both the ISO 15693 and ISO 14443 standards. Although ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags would also work with this application, Page says, the cost of UHF tags with high user memory would be too great to make the solution economical. When a truck arrives at the dealer or service center, an RFID tag attached to its windshield, door jam or glove box would be read using the handheld interrogator. The tag stores data about the vehicle, including its make, model and year, as well as the maintenance history. Information from the tag would then sent from the reader to the hosted BMIS application, which would store that data and begin displaying a list of steps for the user to complete based on the vehicle's particular needs, such as maintenance or repair.
Once this work is completed, the user would hold the interrogator near the vehicle's tag and write a list of completed procedures. If a problem were found with regard to an alternator or starter, that component would be tested, and if it needed to be returned to MEAA, a tag would then be attached to that part, with the details of the tests written to that tag. At the same time, all vehicle and component data would be uploaded to the BMIS software on the Midtronics server, where it could then be accessed by MEAA, the service provider or the truck fleet owner, if so requested.
"The beauty of this is it provides a benefit for all the players along this chain," Page states. For MEAA, it provides an easier warranty process, in which it can simply read a tag, capture warranty data along with information regarding the component's functionality, and then ease the process of either completing a warranty claim, refurbishing the part or just replacing it. "Having that capability to read data from the tag," Warmack says, "gives us an automated way to receive warranty data."
For fleet owners, there is an electronic trail of when and how each vehicle was maintained, thus allowing better management of trucks' maintenance schedules, based on the results of the tests. For example, some parts may not need to be replaced as early as the company would have scheduled replacement, if testing found it operating properly and that data was provided in the BMIS system. Midtronics has patents on the technology, Page says, as well as several that are pending. Both Mitsubishi Electric and Midtronics are presently in discussions with customers about the solution, and deployments are planned for this year, though at this time, the two companies have declined to name any participants. The long-term vision, Page notes, consists of every component manufacturer attaching tags to their parts, and every maintenance service provider using a tester equipped with RFID readers. However, he says, that prospect could still be several years away.