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German Book Retailer Tracks Containers' Coming and Going

RFID system replaces bar codes to track whether Thalia's stores have returned the company's book bins.
By Rhea Wessel
Mar 14, 2007When a leading German book retailer, Thalia, decided to invest in new containers for transporting books from its central warehouse to retail stores, it opted to add RFID tags to the mix.

Thalia's logistics and warehousing provider, Rhenus, is now using about 120,000 tags in the application, which has been operational since 2004. Each of the 60,000 containers in circulation carries two 13.56 MHz passive tags complying with ISO 15693. The company's goal is to ensure that every container makes it back from the store to the warehouse. To make it easier for employees to scan the polypropylene bins regardless of how they are stacked, it has deployed two tags, encoded with the same unique ID number, on opposing sides of each container. The tags are embedded in paper labels printed, in bar code and human-readable text, with the same ID number encoded to the tags.

Kerstin Kleine-Wienker
The bar codes are used to control and expedite the process of picking and sorting 18 million books per year from warehouse shelves, as well as preparing them for shipping. RFID comes into play when goods leave the warehouse in containers, and when empty containers return to the warehouse.

The head of the Rhenus logistics center in Dortmund, Kerstin Kleine-Wienker, says Rhenus and Thalia made a conscious effort to keep the application simple, hoping to gain experience with RFID. "It's a new technology, and we wanted to see how we could use it and expand it later on," she explains.

Here's how the process works: A worker receives an electronic work order and follows prompts from a warehouse management system. The prompts appear on a display mounted onto a picking rack holding eight RFID-tagged containers. Responding to the prompts, the worker wheels the racks to a specific bay, identifiable by means of bar-coded labels. Upon arriving at the bay, the employee uses a bar-code reader attached to the cart to scan the bay's bar-code label. If the bay is the correct one, the worker receives an electronic confirmation and is prompted to pull out the appropriate books to fill orders. A light on the rack holding the containers then blinks, providing a visual tip about where to deposit the books. When the picking and sorting is finished, personnel wheel the cart to a conveyor belt and unload each box onto it. Bar codes on the containers are scanned so the bar-code-based picking-and-sorting system knows which container it is working with, then the boxes are weighed and a packing slip and address label are printed.

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