Is IO-Link only for Simplifying Sensor Integration?

PossibilitiesOn several occasions, I was asked what other applications IO-Link is suitable for? Is it only for sensor integration? Well the answer is no! There are several uses for IO-Link and we are just beginning to scratch the surface for what IO-Link can do. In this blog post I will cover at least 7 common uses for IO-Link including sensor integration.
IO-Link in essence provides tremendous flexibility. Each available IO-Link port offers the possibility to connect devices from hundreds of manufacturers to build a resilient distributed modular controls architecture — that is essentially independent of the fieldbus or network. IO-Link is the first standardized sensor/actuator communication protocol as defined in IEC61131-9.

USE-CASE #1: Simplify sensor integration
Multitudes of IO-Link sensors from 100+ manufacturers can be connected using the simple 3-wire M12 prox cables. No shielded cables are required. Additionally, using IO-Link provides a parameterization feature and anti-tampering abilities- on the same 3 wires. The sensor can be configured remotely through a PLC or the controller and all the configuration settings can be stored for re-application when the sensor is replaced. This way, on your dreaded night shift changing complex sensor is just plug-n-play. Recipe changes on the line are a breeze too. For example, if you have an IO-Link color sensor configured to detect a green color and for the next batch you want to start detecting red color- with IO-Link it is simply a matter of sending a parameter for the color sensor – instead of sending a maintenance person to change the settings on the sensor itself — saving valuable time on the line.
color sensors

USE-CASE #2: Simplify analog sensor connections
In one of my previous blogs, “Simplify your existing analog sensor connection”, I detailed how connecting an analog sensor with single or multi-channel analog-to-IO-Link (A/D) converters can eliminate expensive shielded cables and expensive analog cards in the controller rack and avoids all the hassle that comes with the analog sensors.

USE-CASE #3: Simplify RFID communication
IO-Link makes applications with RFID particularly intriguing because it takes all the complexity of the RFID systems out for simple applications such as access control, error-proofing, number plate tracking and so on. In an open port on IO-Link master device you can add read/write or read only RFID heads and start programming. A couple of things to note here is this IO-Link based RFID is geared for small data communication where the data is about 100-200 bytes. Of-course if you are getting into high volume data applications a dedicated RFID is preferred. The applications mentioned above are not data intensive and IO-Link RFID is a perfect solution for it.

USE-CASE #4: Simplify Valve Integration
valve manifoldTypically valve banks from major manufacturers come with a D-sub connection with 25 pins. These 25 wires are now required to be routed back to the controls cabinet, cut, stripped, labeled, crimped and then terminated. The other expensive option is to use a network node on the valve bank itself, which requires routing expensive network cable and power cable to the valve bank. Not to mention the added cost for the network node on the valve bank. Several manufacturers now offer IO-Link on the valve manifold itself simplifying connection to 4-wires and utilizing inexpensive M12 prox cables. If you still have the old D-sub connector, an IO-Link to 25-pin D-sub connectors may be a better solution to simplify the valve bank installation. This way, you can easily retrofit your valve bank to get the enhanced diagnostics with IO-Link without much cost. Using IO-Link valve connectors not only saves time on integration by avoiding the labor associated with wire routing, but it also offers a cost effective solution compared to a network node on the valve manifold. Now you can get multiple valve manifolds on the single network node (used by the IO-Link master) rather than providing a single node for each valve manifold in use.

USE-CASE #5 Simplify Process Visualization
Who would have thought IO-Link can add intelligence to a stack light or status indicator? Well, we did. Balluff introduced an IO-Link based fully programmable LED tower light system to disrupt the status indicator market. The LED tower light, or SmartLight, uses a 3-wire M12 prox cable and offers different modes of operations such as standard stack light mode with up to 5 segments of various color lights to show the status of the system, or as a run-light mode to display particular information about your process such as system is running but soon needs a mechanical or electrical maintenance and this is done by simply changing colors of a running segment or the background segment. Another mode of operation could be a level mode where you can show the progress of process or show the fork-lift operators that the station is running low on parts. Since the Smartlight uses LEDs to show the information, the colors, and the intensity of the light can be programmed. If that is not enough you can also add a buzzer that offers programmable chopped, beep or continuous sound. The Smartlight takes all of the complexity of the stack light and adds more features and functions to upgrade your plant floor.

USE-CASE #6: Non-contact connection of power and data exchange
Several times on assembly lines, a question is how to provide power to the moving pallets to energize the sensors and I/O required for the operation? When multi-pin connectors are used the biggest problem is that the pins break by constantly connecting or disconnecting. Utilizing an inductive coupling device that can enable transfer of power and IO-Link data across an air-gap simplifies the installation and eliminates the unplanned down-time. With IO-Link inductive couplers, up to 32 bytes of data and power can be transferred. Yes you can activate valves over the inductive couplers!  More on inductive coupling can be found on my other series of blogs “Simple Concepts for Complex Automation”

USE-CASE #7: Build flexible high density I/O architectures.
IO PointsHow many I/O points are you hosting today on a single network drop? The typical answer is 16 I/O points. What happens when you need one additional I/O point or the end-user demands 20% additional I/O points on the machine? Until now, you were adding more network or fieldbus nodes and maintaining them. With I/O hubs powered by IO-link on that same M12 4-wire cable, now each network node can host up to 480 I/O points if you use 16 port IO-Link masters. Typically most of our customers use 8-port IO-Link masters and they have the capacity to build up to 240 configurable I/O on a single network drop. Each port on the I/O hub hosts two channels of I/O points with each channel configurable as input or output, as normally open or normally closed. Additionally, you can get diagnostics down to each port about over-current or short-circuit. And the good thing is, each I/O hub can be about 20m away.

In a nutshell, IO-Link can be used for more than just simplifying sensor integration and can help significantly reduce your costs for building flexible resilient controls architectures. Still don’t believe it? Contact us and we can work through your particular architecture to see if IO-Link offers a viable option for you on your next project.

Learn more about our IO-Link solutions at

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Quick field replacement for linear sensor electronics

Micropulse Transducers BTL 7 Rod-style with Rapid Replacement Module

Micropulse Transducers BTL 7
Rod-style with Rapid Replacement Module

When maintenance technicians replace linear position sensors (also known as probes or wands) from hydraulic cylinders, it can leave a terrible mess, waste hydraulic oils, and expose the individual to harmful hot fluids.  Also, the change out process can expose the hydraulic system to unwanted contaminants. After the sensor replacement has been completed, there can also be more work yet to do during the outage such as replacing fluids and air-bleeding cylinders.

Hydraulic linear position sensors with field-replaceable electronics/sensing elements eliminate these concerns.  Such sensors, so-called Rapid Replacement Module (RRM) sensors, allow the “guts” of the sensor to be replaced, while the stainless steel pressure tube remains in the cylinder.  The hydraulic seal is never compromised.  That means that during the replacement process there is no danger of oil spillage and no need for environmental containment procedures. There is also no need to bleed air from the hydraulic system and no danger of dirt or wood debris entering the open hydraulic port. Finally, there is no danger of repair personnel getting burned by hot oil.

The RRM is an option for Balluff’s BTL7 Z/B Rod Series used in applications for the lumber industry, plastic injection and blow molding, tire and rubber manufacturing, stamping presses, die casting, and all types of automated machinery where a continuous, absolute position signal is required.  Applications in industries such as Oil & Gas and Process Control are especially critical when it comes to downtime.  For these applications, this Rapid Replacement Module capability is especially advantageous.

You can learn more about linear position sensors with hazardous area approvals, by visting

The video below shows a demonstration of the Rapid Replacement Module in action.

For more information on this topic, please visit

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Basic Sensors for Robot Grippers

Robot gripper with inductive proximity sensors mounted

Robot gripper with inductive proximity sensors mounted

Typically when we talk about end-of-arm tooling we are discussing how to make robot grippers smarter and more efficient. We addressed this topic in a previous blog post, 5 Tips on Making End-of-Arm Tooling Smarter. In this post, though, we are going to get back to the basics and talk about two options for robot grippers: magnetic field sensors, and inductive proximity sensors.

One of the basic differences is that detection method that each solution utilizes. Magnetic field sensors use an indirect method by monitoring the mechanism that moves the jaws, not the jaws themselves. Magnetic field sensors sense magnets internally mounted on the gripper mechanism to indicate the open or closed position. On the other hand, inductive proximity sensors use a direct method that monitors the jaws by detecting targets placed directly in the jaws. Proximity sensors sense tabs on moving the gripper jaw mechanism to indicate a fully open or closed position.


Robot gripper with magnetic field sensors mounted

Additionally, each solution offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Magnetic field sensors, for example, install directly into extruded slots on the outside of the cylinder, can detect an extremely short piston stroke, and offer wear-free position detection. On the other side of the coin, the disadvantages of magnetic field sensors for this application are the necessity of a magnet to be installed in the piston which also requires that the cylinder walls not be magnetic. Inductive proximity sensors allow the cylinder to be made of any material and do not require magnets to be installed. However, proximity sensors do require more installation space, longer setup time, and have other variables to consider.

For more information in this topic and others visit

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The promise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

Things to Avoid and Pursue

There is a long list of activities Control Engineers and Plant Managers avoid like the plague…

  • Modifying PLC code
  • Adding an HMI
  • Modifying HMI screens
  • Adding additional Indicators

On the other side, there is a list of activities they need to do to keep their plant on the forefront of lean manufacturing…

  • Providing real-time operational visibility
  • Adding new manufacturing/process functions
  • Adding/updating Error Proofing devices
  • Providing preventative and predictive maintenance information
Scaling up to IIoT with IO-Link and Balluff's Virtual IP Address Concept

Scaling up to IIoT with IO-Link and Balluff’s Virtual IP Address Concept

Fortunately, the IIoT can help you avoid what you want to avoid and do more of what you need to do. The promise of IIoT can be realized with an IO-Link Architecture featuring Balluff’s Virtual IP address concept. This scalable architecture allows the PLC to do its thing while an independent PC (the one on your desk for example) can access the IO devices directly to get at operational and process data not always available in the PLC.

Learn more at

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Photoelectric Basics – Distance Measuring

Some photoelectric applications require not only knowing if the object is present or not but exactly where the object is while providing a continuous or dynamic value representative of the objects location.  For instance, if a robot is stacking a product is the stack at the correct height or how many additional pieces can be placed on the stack, how large is the coil or roll diameter of a product, and how high is the level or how much further can the product move before it is in position.  Distance sensors can provide this dynamic information and in some case provide a digital output as well for alarms.

RetroreflectiveThese sensors are normally based on diffuse sensing technology. However, in some cases retro-reflective technology is used for extremely long sensing distances.  As with diffuse sensors there is only one device to mount and wire.  However, due to the technology required for the higher resolutions, lensing, electronics and outputs these devices are typically much more expensive than a discrete diffuse sensor.

Similar to a diffuse sensor the distance sensor emits a pulsed light that strikes an object and a certain amount of light is reflected back to the sensor’s receiver.  The sensor then generates an analog output signal that is proportional to the distance to the target.  The technology that is utilized within the sensor to determine the distance is either Time of Flight or Triangulation.

PrintTime of Flight sensors are more immune to target color and texture than light intensity based system because of the time component.  These devices measure greater distances than the triangulation method however there is a sacrifice in resolution.

PrintTriangulation sensors emit a pulsed light towards the target object.  The light is then reflected back to the receiver.  When the light reaches the sensor it will strike the photosensing diode at some angle.  The distance between the sensor and the target determines the angle in which the light strikes the receiver.  The closer the target is the sensor the greater the angle.
Triangulation based sensors being dependent on the amount of reflected light are more susceptible to target characteristics such as color and texture.  These sensors are characterized by short to mid-range sensing distance however they provide higher resolutions than TOF sensors.

Output signals are either 0…10 volts, 1…10 volts or 4…20mA each of which has their pros and cons.  Voltage outputs, 0 – 10 or 1- 10 volts, are easier to test and there is typically a broader offering of interface devices.  However voltage outputs are more susceptible to noise from motors, solenoids or other coils and voltage drops of the wire.  In addition generally voltage output cable runs should be less than 50 feet.  Also since 0 volts is an acceptable output value broken wires, device failures, or power failures can go undetected.

Current outputs, 4 – 20 mA, provide the best noise immunity, are not affected by voltage drop and the cables lengths can exceed 50 feet.  Since the sensor will be providing 4mA at zero distance its lowest possible signal, if the sensor should fail, the cable damaged or a power failure the interface device can detect the absence of the signal and notify an operator.  Current outputs are more difficult to test and in some cases are affected by temperature variations.

For more information about photoelectric sensors, request your copy of Balluff’s Photoelectric Handbook.

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Sensor Reliability in Steel Production

01_SteelIn any continuous manufacturing process such as steel production, increased throughput is the path to higher profits through maximum utilization of fixed capital investments. In order to achieve increased throughput, more sophisticated control systems are being deployed. These systems enable ever-higher levels of automation but can present new challenges in terms of managing system reliability. Maintenance of profit margins depends on the line remaining in production with minimal unexpected downtime.

It is essential that control components, such as sensors, be selected in accordance with the rigorous demands of steel industry applications. Standard sensors intended for use in more benign manufacturing environments are often not suitable for the steel industry and may not deliver dependable service life.

When specifying sensors for steel production applications, some environmental conditions to consider include:


High-temperature M30 proximity sensor.

High-temperature M30 proximity sensor.

High temperatures exist in many areas of the steel-making process, such as the coke oven battery, blast furnace, electric arc furnace, oxygen converter, continuous casting line, and hot rolling line. Electronic components are stressed by elevated temperatures and can fail at much higher rates than they would at room temperature. Heat can affect sensors through conduction (direct transfer from the mounting), convection (circulating hot air), or radiation (line-of-sight infrared heating at a distance). The first strategy is to install sensors in ways that minimize exposure to these three thermal mechanisms. The second line of defense is to select sensors with extended temperature ratings. Many standard sensors can operate up to 185° F (85° C) but high temperature versions can operate to 212° F (100° C) or higher. Extreme temperature sensors can operate to 320° F (160° C) or even 356° F (180° C).

Don’t forget to consider the temperature rating of any quick-disconnect cables that will be used with the sensors. Many standard cable materials will melt or break down quickly at higher temperatures.  Fiberglass-jacketed cables, for example, are rated to 752° F (400° C).

Shock and Vibration

Hydraulic cylinder position sensor rated at 150 G shock.

Hydraulic cylinder position sensor rated at 150 G shock.

Steel making involves large forces and heavy loads that generate substantial amounts of shock under normal and/or abnormal conditions. Vibration is also ever-present from motors, rollers, and moving materials. As with heat, look for sensors with enhanced specifications for shock and vibration. For sensors with fixed mountings, look for shock ratings of at least 30 G. For sensors mounted to equipment that is moving (for example, position sensors on hydraulic cylinders), consider sensors with shock ratings of 100 to 150 G. For vibration, the statement of specifications can vary. For example, it may be stated as a frequency and amplitude, such as 55 Hz @ 1 mm or as acceleration over a frequency range, such as 20 G from 10…2000 Hz.

Don’t forget that the quick-disconnect connector can sometimes be a vulnerability under severe shock. Combat broken connectors with so-called “pigtail” or “inline” connectors that have a flexible cable coming out of the sensor that goes to a quick-disconnect a few inches or feet away.

Mechanical Impact

Steelface proximity sensors bunkered in protective mounting.

Proximity sensor bunkered in a protective mounting block.

The best way to protect sensors from mechanical impact is to install them in protective mounting brackets (a.k.a. “bunker blocks”) or to provide heavy-duty covers over them. When direct contact with the sensor cannot be avoided, choose sensors specifically designed to handle impact.

Another strategy is to use remote sensor actuation to detect objects without making physical contact with the sensor itself.

Corrosion and Liquid Ingress

In areas with water spray and steam, such as the scale cracker on a hot strip line, corrosion and liquid ingress can lead to sensor failure. Look for stainless steel construction (aluminum can corrode) and enhanced ingress protection ratings such as IP68 or IP69K.

When All Else Fails…Rapid Replacement

Quick-change prox mounts for proximity sensors.

Quick-change prox mounts for proximity sensors.

If and when a sensor failure inevitably occurs, choose products and accessories that can minimize the downtime by speeding up the time required for replacement.

Strategies include quick-change sensor mounts, rapid-replacement sensor modules, and redundant sensor outputs.

In the case of redundant sensor outputs, if the primary output fails, the system can continue to operate from the secondary or even tertiary output.

You can learn more about sensing solutions for the Steel Industry in Balluff’s industry brochure.

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Back to Basics: Analog Signals

Industrial sensors used for continuous position or process measurement commonly provide output signals in the form of either an analog voltage or an analog current. Both are relatively simple interfaces, but there are things to consider when choosing between the two.

AnalogCurrent Industrial sensors with current output are typically available with output ranges of 0 to 20 mA, which can be converted to 0-10 VDC by using a 500 Ω resistor in parallel at the controller input. Output ranges of 4 to 20 mA, which can be converted to 1-5 VDC by using a 250 Ω resistor in parallel at the controller input. Although it requires a shielded cable, current output allows use of longer cable runs without signal loss as well as more immunity to electrical noise. It is also easily converted to voltage using a simple resistor. Most, but not all, industrial controllers are capable of accepting current signals.

AnalogVoltageIndustrial sensors with voltage output are typically available with output ranges of:

  • 0 to 10 VDC (most common)
  • -10 to +10 VDC
  • -5 to +5 VDC
  • 0 to 5 VDC
  • 1 to 5 VDC

One of the main advantages of voltage output is that it is simple to troubleshoot. The interface is very common and compatible with most industrial controllers. Additionally, voltage output is sometimes less expensive compared to current output. With that being said, compared to current signals, voltage signals are more susceptible to interference from electrical noise. To avoid signal loss, cable length must be limited. Voltage output also requires high impedance input and shielded cable.

To learn more about this topic and more visit the Balluff Basics library at

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Die Identification – A Critical Part of the Stamping Operation

DieCrashIt’s one thing to stamp out a bunch of bad parts because the die hasn’t been properly maintained, but it is another to suffer through a crash because the wrong shut height was set. Failure means hours or even days of downtime and hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair expenses. The fact is, both are preventable with a very simple RFID solution.

Let’s face it, stamping presses aren’t the most technologically advanced machines in our industry. With all the multi-axis, CNC driven machines out there nowadays a press can look somewhat archaic. However, they are one of the most widely utilized machines across the globe today and have been for many years. I can’t say how many times I have walked into a press shop and witnessed 30 year old presses in full operation. So while they may be the dinosaurs in the world of machines, their flawless operation is critical.

One sure way to protect this critical process is to incorporate RFID. Simply affixing an RFID tag to the die can inform the operator of the following:

  • Die location
  • Use Data
  • Repair Data
  • Setup Data
  • Shut Height
  • Feed Material
  • Correct Transfers
  • Number of Hits

All this information is recorded to the tag’s memory and can be read with either a handheld or fixed reader. Since the tag can be read and written to, the information on the tag can be updated after every job or periodic maintenance.

Everyone knows that properly maintained tools extend the life of equipment and help ensure quality products are being produced, but recording this data is another story. The safest and most secure method of recording data about a die is RFID. There are no documents to lose, or illegible handwriting to decipher because the RFID tag is secured directly to the die. Incorporating a die protection program is certainly not a major undertaking. On the contrary, recovering from a crash can cause a major strain on time and resources.

Learn more about solutions for the Metal Stamping industry by visiting Balluff’s website.

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Benefits of Non-contact Linear Position Sensing Technology

Linear position sensors that provide continuous, typically analog, feedback are used extensively in a variety of applications in many different industries and markets.  Linear position sensors employ various technologies, but at the most basic level the technologies can be classified as being either non-contact or contact based.

For the purpose of this article, when we talk about contact based technology, the example we’re using is resistive linear potentiometers.  And for non-contact technology, we’re talking about magnetostrictive sensors.

In industrial linear position sensing applications, both ultimately do the same job; provide variable analog signals that represent the linear position of a machine or a process.  The difference is how the signal is derived.

Resistive linear potentiometers employ a resistive element upon which a spring-loaded contact rides:01_Potentiometers

The output of the sensor represents the position of the slider along the resistive element and typically ranges from 0-10Vdc or -10 to +10Vdc.  Out of the box, performance and accuracy is pretty good.  But after repeated cycles, wear can start to place that affects the connection between the resistive element and the contact.  The end result is signal anomalies and worsening performance over time, as can be seen in the image below.


Other external factors, such as dirt and/or moisture only serve to accelerate this declining performance.


Non-contact technology, such as is incorporated into magnetostrictive linear position sensors, isn’t vulnerable to mechanical wear and subsequent performance degradation.

Unlike, resistive sensors, magnetostrictive sensors operate on the principle of magnetism.  Interacting magnetic fields define the output value, which changes as a moving magnet travels along a sensing element, called a waveguide.  There is no mechanical contact, so there is no mechanical wear.  The result is greatly enhanced life expectancy and consistently excellent performance

Cost Considerations

Generally, resistive linear position sensor cost a bit less than magnetostrictive sensors.  However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.  True cost of ownership has to be considered.  For a more complete discussion about cost of ownership, take a few minutes to review the Sensortech article The True Cost of Low Cost.

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RFID for Work in Process (WIP) – Empowering people to make complex business decisions.

traceability_1From the concrete of the production floor to the carpet in the executive offices, RFID technology provides actionable data which allows organizations to make complex business decisions. Making decisions based on actual data opposed to “best guess” data…I don’t even need to explain that. The trick is collecting that data and making it available for the organization. That is where RFID comes into play.

Work in Process is one of many applications within a plant in which RFID improves overall process efficiency. It helps to enable flexible manufacturing, tracks the work process, and helps to maintain regulatory compliance. Simply put, RFID technology is responsible for collecting the data, but it is up to the humans to use the data.

What is the data that is being recorded and collected?

  • Build Data: What are we trying to build? (for flexible MFG)
  • Process Data: How well did we build it? (Error Proofing or Poka Yoke)
  • Lineage Data: Where did the parts come from? (Tracking sub-assemblies and parts to their origin)

How does this data benefit the manufacturing organization?

Build Data:  Consider a company who is manufacturing seats for an automobile. The number of options on seats today is mind boggling. A few options include: Heaters, automated controls, weight sensors, specialized foam, specialized covers, etc.  The problem is they all look the same to the human eye. When tagged with an RFID tag all that data is written to the memory in the beginning of the process and then the data is read at every work station along the line to identify exactly what needs to be done based on what the finished product is going to be. In the old days, the operator at each station would have to read through a couple reams of paper to determine what needs to be completed. Now an automatic data transfer informs the operator what needs to be completed.

Process Data: At the same seat manufacturer, let’s say there are twenty stations (processes) that a seat must go through in order to be completed. Now, let’s say there was an error installing the heating mechanism in station three. The seat then proceeds through the remaining seventeen stations getting many other things added to it along the way. Then, prior to shipping, it goes through final inspection and the heater problem is identified. Now, that final seat needs to be either scrapped or needs to go back through the rework line. That’s what used to happen in the old days. Nowadays there are error checks in between each station that quickly identify problems immediately opposed to waiting until the end of the line resulting in lost labor and time. As the seat moves from station three to four the error check occurs and either a go or no-go is written to the tag. If the reader in station four reads a no-go off the tag the operator is notified immediately and the production error can be corrected immediately without having to tear the seat apart to fix the problem. Additionally, the entire production process is written to the tag along the way and at the end of the line the information is uploaded to a database.  The tag can then be erased and written to all over again.

Let’s say the seat manufacturer receives a special order that has to be run ASAP. All twenty seats currently on the line need to be removed to make way for the special order. After the special order is completed it’s now time to put the seats back in their respective stations. RFID takes the guess work out of that process because now they can just read the RFID tag and it will tell them the exact station it belongs in.

Lineage Data:  All those seat variations mean many different components coming from many different suppliers. RFID is used to track those parts back to their origin in case of recall or repetitive part failure. Now instead of bringing the entire assembly back and scrapping the seat they can identify the faulty component, replace it, and hold their suppliers accountable to their quality promise.

Ultimately, from the concrete to the carpet, RFID helps manufacturing organizations make high quality products, eliminate un-planned down time, and improve overall efficiency. By allowing operators and executives to make decisions based on actual data, RFID is helping drive manufacturing organizations to the next level.

For more information on RFID solutions visit

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