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M/A-COM Combines RFID and Sensors for Smarter Forklift

The vendor's RFID-enabled system uses acoustic and height sensors to improve a forklift's accuracy and throughput.
By Beth Bacheldor
Jan 20, 2009M/A-COM Technology Solutions, a provider of microwave and RF products, has introduced a new EPC Gen 2 RFID solution for forklifts that includes laser and acoustic sensors designed to help improve tag-read and accuracy rates.

"The business problem is that it is very expensive to operate forklifts in high-volume warehouses or distribution centers," says Bill Petry, strategic marketing manager for M/A-COM, which unveiled its RFID Forklift System at last week's ProMat 2009, a Chicago-based conference focused on supply chain solutions. A typical warehouse, he explains, may operate 10 to 20 forklifts simultaneously, each moving pallets to and from numerous dock doors to rows of stacked shelves. "Each forklift probably moves about 20 pallets an hour, and the real challenge is to increase the throughput of the pallets processed, and to process those pallets accurately."

The sensor-based RFID Forklift System
Initial estimates by M/A-COM indicate that a company utilizing the RFID Forklift System would likely increase the throughput of moving pallets in and out by 10 to 20 percent, Petry says, with the added benefit of increased accuracy. He adds that a 10 percent increase in throughput is a very large cost savings. "Operator labor is the dominant cost element in these warehouse operations, dwarfing the forklift acquisition cost."

Many warehouses employ bar-coding solutions to help ensure the correct pallets are moved. In a number of situations, forklift operators must then halt the truck, hop off and manually scan the bar codes located on pallets and shelves before loading or unloading them. This can be a time-consuming process that slows operators down, thereby decreasing the number of pallets that can be moved and increasing the amount of labor required—both of which add costs to warehouse operations. Several companies have wanted to leverage RFID instead, especially since so many suppliers are adding RFID tags to pallets. But simply affixing RFID interrogators to forklifts so they can read RFID tags affixed to shelves and pallets may not work.

"Warehouses are complex, and they are tough environments for RFID," Petry states. "There is a lot of interference from the metal, and when there are racks and racks of pallets with RFID tags on them, when you drive a forklift around with an RFID reader, it will get lots and lots of reads. So how do you know if you have the right pallet being loaded onto the forklift?"

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