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RFID Helps Tile Maker Keep Costs From Going Through the Roof

Thanks to the system, MCA has reduced the amount of time needed to take inventory of its clay roofing tiles by 98 percent.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 25, 2015

Maruhachi Ceramics of America (MCA) is employing a radio frequency identification system to track the locations of 50,000 pallets loaded with products, and has thereby reduced its inventory checking time from three days for eight staff members (a total of approximately 190 hours) to only four hours for a single person. The system—consisting of TracerPlus software provided by Portable Technology Solutions (PTS), passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags from Alien Technology, and a Zebra Technologies handheld RFID reader and printer-encoder—also ensures that personnel know where a product is located when they need to load it onto a truck. Since the system was taken live in the yard in February 2015, MCA has expanded it to include supplies and tools, to better ensure that components and materials required for manufacturing can be found when needed.

MCA manufactures approximately 18,000 different types of tiles, varying in shape, style and size, typically for roofing. Its customers are worldwide, predominantly in the Sun Belt areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as in Hawaii and Guam. An order could include 100,000 tiles, which are made in the California company's own kiln, and are then loaded onto pallets to await shipping.

To take inventory of all the pallets loaded with tiles, an MCA staff member walks down each row, carrying a handheld reader loaded with the PTS TracerPlus software.
Because it is very expensive to turn the kiln off and on again, the company typically operates the machine around the clock. Once current orders are complete, workers make other commonly ordered products for future orders, all of which are stored in the yard. The tiles, in fact, can be stored there for years without suffering any damage, though the pallets do not last as long as the tiles do when exposed to harsh weather.

Consequently, the eight-acre yard is packed with such a large variety of products that the firm must conduct frequent inventory counts. Historically, it has done so by having employees visually identify each pallet load and record this information manually using paper and pen, or via bar-coded labels attached to pallets. However, says Linda Hanson, MCA's CFO, since the bar-code system it used was obsolete, replacing scanners or updating software became impossible. The bar-code solution also had shortcomings, since it was slow—staff members had to scan each pallet's bar-code label, and then input the quantity of tiles on that pallet. Bar-code labels could be difficult to find and, in some cases, were worn off the pallet entirely.

Hanson says she had looked into RFID to resolve the inventory issues, but found that the technology was too expensive. That changed, however, when she discovered the PTS system that enabled the scanning of tags via mobile handheld readers, and the management of the collected data via TracerPlus Mobile Data Collection software operating on the handhelds and on the company's database. The system was installed in just two months, she reports.

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