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Wal-Mart Using RFID to Monitor Vehicles at Its DCs

The system is helping the retailer increase productivity at a dozen of its distribution centers, through improved utilization of the vehicles and their drivers.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 26, 2008To track lift trucks and other vehicles at a dozen of its distribution centers in the United States, Wal-Mart has been using an RFID-based system made by New Jersey-based I.D. Systems.

"Wal-Mart accomplished two major objectives [by deploying the system]," says Gene Merlo, I.D. Systems' VP of North American sales. "It increased productivity [inside its DCs using the system], and it improved utilization of vehicles inside the DCs." The retailer began with an initial test at a single distribution center in late 2005, then rolled it out to a small group of DCs in 2006 and a third, larger one last year.

The I.D. Systems' vehicle management system (VMS) consists of a battery-powered 915 MHz RFID transceiver built into a vehicle asset communicator (VAC)—a small computer that mounts onto a lift truck or other vehicle. The VAC uses a proprietary air-interface protocol to communicate data to I.D. Systems receivers, known as Wireless Asset Managers, mounted throughout a DC. The number of these receivers installed at a particular DC varies depending on the facility's size. The Wireless Asset Managers then pass the data they collect to I.D. Systems software running on a central server within the facility, either via a wireless or wired (Ethernet) link.

The software processes each tag's location and sensor data, and can tell DC managers everything from where a specific vehicle is located within the facility, to who is driving the vehicle, whether it is carrying a load and if it requires maintenance. It can also save and aggregate this data for each vehicle to provide lifecycle visibility.

At the start of a shift, Merlo says, a Wal-Mart driver must undergo a number of interactions with a vehicle's VAC before he can operate that vehicle. First, the driver presents his personnel badge to the VAC. The built-in RFID interrogator reads the badge's embedded passive RFID tag, and determines whether the driver is authorized to operate that specific vehicle.

If the driver has authorization and is the first person to drive the car on any given shift, Merlo says, the VAC's display screen then directs that individual to make a number of safety checks on the vehicle, in compliance with U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. Such checks are done partially through computerized diagnostic checks with the vehicle engine, and partially through manual inspections. The driver must check the brakes and inspect for leaks or broken parts. "It's similar to the checks a pilot makes on an airplane before a flight," Merlo explains.

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