West Japan Railway relies on RFID-based tool management

RFID-based system for visualization of tool management status, increased safety and operational efficiency through systematization

West Japan Railway Technos Corporation (JR West Technos), which is headquartered in Osaka Kita Ward, manages the entire life cycle of railway vehicles from the marshalling yards in the JR West area. Its main business is the maintenance and repair of rail vehicles. The company deals with all aspects of development, design, manufacture and modification of in-house rail vehicles. With the aim of promoting railroad safety and development, the company offers new products and services to meet the increasingly diverse needs of passengers and society.

For the management of maintenance tools, the company has developed an RFID-based management system, which uses the powerful RFID handheld scanner "SP1" and the handheld terminal "BHT-1800" equipped with Android.

Making tool management safer and reducing the workload

In all railroad operations where the lives of many people are at stake, passenger safety must always be the top priority. JR West Technos is responsible for the maintenance of more than 5,000 railcars operating on the conventional lines of West Japan Railway Company. The work area where the new system was installed has around 2,500 tools, of which around 500 are in use every day. If even one of these tools is left behind in a wagon after maintenance, it could lead to a serious accident. For this reason, tool management is a critical part of the job.

Until now, tool management has been done by visual inspection by maintenance staff. At least twice a day, before and after starting work, the workers checked that they had all the tools they needed. To do this, they filled out a checklist, which the supervisor then cross-checked again using the same checklist. In addition, the supervisor made inspection rounds on the job site as needed. This type of analog system, which relied solely on human attentiveness, not only placed an enormous burden on workers, but also carried the risk of tools being left behind due to human error.

In addition, tool management for outside jobs, such as repairs at remote locations outside the yard, was inadequate with the previous system. There were also problems with tracking tool output and its use off-site. Given these issues, it was felt that a system needed to be developed that utilized the latest technologies to visualize the status of tool management.

Excellent scanning performance and stability of communication between SP1 and BHT-1800

The goals were to improve safety by visualizing tool management and to increase efficiency by systematizing it. Since off-the-shelf systems cannot be used outside the marshalling yard and would require a large installation effort, the decision was made to develop an in-house system in collaboration with Fujitsu Limited, which has expertise in warehouse management systems. To ensure that the system could be easily implemented and expanded, it was decided to use general-purpose technologies such as wireless communications as much as possible. Thus, RFID technology was chosen because it allows wireless data exchange, is dirt-resistant and allows multiple scans at the same time. When considering which devices to use, the RFID reader "SP1" from DENSO WAVE, which has an excellent reading speed and range, was a convincing choice. Also, in combination with the "BHT-1800" handheld terminal, it offered a high level of stability in communication between devices and features the kind of resilience that only a commercial device can offer in terms of water and dust resistance. Android-equipped devices also offered a high degree of freedom in terms of the app development environment.

Centralized area-wide management of tools on and off site. Cost reduction in tool management and for tools that are not needed.

The system works similar to a self-service checkout, where maintenance employees check out and return tools themselves. Because the system checks each tool individually, it helps make employees "aware of the value" of the tools. One concern was that a fully automated system would cause this "awareness to dull (leading to frequent tool replacement).

To facilitate tool scanning, special holders were built for the RFID reader. Because these holders can be easily used in both fixed locations and mobile applications, they provide flexibility in the installation of the system.

The new tool management system is currently in operation at the Shimonoseki branch. A large screen in the branch displays real-time information about tools in the yard and tools that have been taken off-site. This creates an environment where all employees can monitor tool management. Another benefit is that employee workload and operating costs for tool management have been significantly reduced. Among other things, field workers say they can focus on their actual maintenance tasks and have become more aware of tool management.

Recording how often each worker uses a particular tool and which tools are not used has led to more efficient tool management. The number of tools not in use has been reduced by about 30%. It will also be able to identify trends such as "who" checked out "what" and "where."

"We plan to use this tool management system at our other sites as well. We are analyzing the vast amounts of data the system produces in hopes that it can be used to make further operational improvements. We are also considering using our newly acquired expertise to propose similar systems to other companies," says Mr. Fukuchi, General Manager Inspection and Repair Management Department Shimonoseki Branch.

A video on this can be found here.


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