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VR Focuses on Slap and Ship

With an eye to Wal-Mart suppliers, Venture Research offers three RFID tagging systems to let companies start small and expand to include more automation.
By Jonathan Collins
Aug 11, 2004RFID systems integrator Venture Research (VR) has announced three RFID-tagging workstations. VR says it designed its new Slap and Ship systems for companies looking to test and build out capabilities to apply RFID tags to their shipments and in particular for organizations looking to quickly meet Wal-Mart's January 2005 deadline.
VR's belt-driven Slap and Ship workstation

VR says its three new Slap and Ship offerings were developed for a company that is already using them to tag shipments to Wal-Mart's north Texas distribution center. Of the more than 130 Wal-Mart consumer packaged goods (CPG) suppliers set to apply tags to cases and pallets shipped to the giant retailer by January 2005, only eight are currently doing so ( see Wal-Mart Begins RFID Rollout). According to Venture Research, building the RFID system for one of those eight has provided VR with valuable experience and insight.

"We are already receiving and validating [RFID-collected] detailed data back from Wal-Mart," says John Baker, president of Venture Research, which is based in Plano, Texas.

“Receipt of the actual data and data format being used by Wal-Mart has allowed us to write our tag data in the exact same format directly into the database as we are encoding the tags. Then, when we get the tracking log from Wal-Mart, we have a reconciliation application that compares the Wal-Mart data and our original data and provides exception reporting,” says Baker. “Having the formats identical makes it easy to reconcile. Of course, seeing our actual tags move through the stores through the logs is a confirmation that the technology will work for its intended purpose.”

The company says it has taken what it has learned from analyzing this data and from its own systems performance, and has used this knowledge to develop three offerings that give CPG manufacturers a way to start their RFID deployments small and then expand them to include more automation.

Each offering contains a conveyor with a computer, RFID readers to encode tags and to ensure the tags are in working order before they leave the system, and visual and audible indicators to provide alerts in the event a tag fails to verify anywhere in the process. The systems include one RFID reader to write data to each RFID tag and a second reader to ensure that each tag is working correctly after it has been applied to the case. VR's Slap and Ship systems also encode a tag that’s attached to the pallet, as required by Wal-Mart’s mandate. This tag is applied manually to the pallet after workers finish loading cases onto the pallet and before they wrap the pallet in plastic.

Each Slap and Ship system includes a VR-developed portal that reads the tag on each case on a fully loaded pallet to ensure every tag is readable before the pallet is shipped. VR says it has developed and will provide all the software to link and manage its RFID systems and will also integrate and install the system for its customers.

The systems already deployed by VR’s customer use Alien Technology's EPC Class 1 inlays. VR says its Slap and Ship offerings don’t use smart labels but instead use RFID inlays with adhesive backing. By avoiding the need to buy and print labels, the Slap and Ship workstations reduce the cost of tagging shipments and offer a higher throughput.

“The smallest label stock we have seen is 4x2 that can be encoded in a printer. If we are not printing, then this is too large and costs substantially more. Since this is pretty much all thrown away for the CPG suppliers, we are trying to minimize their costs,” says Baker.

In all three of its offerings, the company uses readers from different vendors: an AWID reader for the initial encoding of each tag, an Alien reader at the end of the line for automatically verifying that the tag was correctly encoded, and a Matrics reader for the portal that verifies each tag's readability before the pallet is shipped.

"This is the same RFID equipment that Wal-Mart is using," says Baker.

The most basic offering from VR is a manual system, which includes a 10-foot section of roller conveyor and has a throughput of five depalletized and restacked cases a minute. The second level, which comes with a belt-driven conveyor to assist the workstation operator in case handling and has a throughput of 10 to 15 cases a minute. The third level features a motorized conveyor belt and an automated inlay applicator to eliminate the need for a workstation operator. That combination pushes up the number of cases that can be tagged and encoded to 35 a minute (50 a minute for apply only).

The first two offerings features a touch screen interface that helps the operator determine where to manually put the RFID inlay. All three models include a Faraday enclosure the company developed to allows its systems to write at full power but not affect other nearby tags. Additionally the enclosure minimizes the potential for extended close-proximity RF to humans. All models feature a mode for using pre-encoded tags. Only the third model offers the ability to automatically apply the inlays to the cases.

According to VR, its CPG customer that is shipping to Wal-Mart already has deployed both level-one and level-two systems and is starting to apply a level-three system now. The company is using the workstations to manage the unloading of palletized cartons that are then tagged and reloaded onto a pallet as well as to manage direct-to-store shipments of entire loaded pallets. In direct-to-store shipments, cases of items are tagged and loaded onto a pallet at the manufacturer for delivery directly to the store’s distribution center. VR’s CPG customer is shipping RFID-friendly products to Wal-Mart—products that were selected because they do not contain any metal or liquid, which can interfere with the ability of RF communications between tag and reader.

Pricing for the offerings, which includes installation and systems integration, depends on the size and other characteristics of the deployment.

“Pretty much each job we do has unique operational challenges and retrofit requirements, but now we have an RFID engine that we can drop in [to a deployment] that can dramatically accelerate getting a customer up and running,” says Baker.

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