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Provia RFID-Enables Gillette WMS

The software company is working with Gillette to automate the tracking of products in Gillette's East Coast distribution center.
By Bob Violino
May 20, 2003May 21, 2003 - Gillette has turned to Provia Software to automate the tracking of Venus razors and other products at its East Coast distribution center, located at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Provia has also announced that it has joined the Auto-ID Center.
Provia's Pulling

Gillette has been a leader in using the Auto-ID Center's Electronic Product Code. The Fort Devens project is one of the largest EPC implementations currently underway. In the first phase of the rollout, Gillette will track Venus razor blades and six other products at the pallet and case level.

Gillette is working with a number of technology providers, including Alien Technology, OAT Systems and Sun Microsystems, to develop the architecture needed to make it possible to track goods with RFID tags.

Provia, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based unit of Germany's Viastore Systems, provides the warehouse management (WMS) and transportation management (TMS) software for Gillette's warehouses and DC's in North America. So it needed to upgrade its software to handle the RFID data.

During the first stage of the rollout, RFID tags will be read, but Gillette will use manual verification to ensure that the system is working properly, according to Provia VP and COO John Pulling.

"We'll be doing some transaction support in the next couple of months," he says. "The operator may pick up a pallet of goods, and the systems will let him know it didn't get a read. The operator can check it and override it if it's okay, so we don't slow down the flow of materials. As soon as we get all the readers in the right places, get the processes down and make sure the system is completely reliable, we'll eliminate the operator check and switch over to a totally automated system using RFID."

Cases at the Fort Devens facility will get EPC tags during the packaging process. The cases will then be stacked on pallets and shipped on conveyors into the distribution center. Operators will receive the pallets and either store them temporarily, or load them on trucks so they can be shipped to Gillette's retail customers.

If the pallet is stored, the location is automatically recorded by associating the location with the RFID tag on the pallet. If it is loaded on a truck, the tags can be scanned as they go through the dock door. Eventually, the advanced shipping notice routinely sent to retailers will include all of the EPC serial numbers, so the retailer will know precisely what products are being delivered.

The process of RFID-enabling the WMS software is not extremely complex, according to Pulling. He says Provia's product was already able to track unique serial numbers down to the item level. The real challenge is dealing with bulk reads and misreads.

"With bar codes, you scan one item at a time," he says. "With RFID, the pallet drives through a portal, and you get a pallet full of scans all at once, so we needed to create the support to handle the transactions in group mode."

Gillette is using Sensware software created by OAT Systems to filter reads. If a pallet drives past a reader, and then backs up and drives past again, the reader may pick up the tags on the cases three times. Senseware filters out the redundant reads.

Sometimes, however, there are double reads of pallets. Pulling says that the software has been set up to ignore redundant reads. So if a pallet has been received into inventory, and it’s scanned again at the same location, the software will recognize that it has already been received and won't add the goods to inventory again.

In cases where an item is read in the wrong location, the software sends an alert, via RF terminal, to an operator, who is instructed to investigate. "The key is expecting to get a read, then getting it and ignoring erroneous reads," Pulling says.

Provia has set up the WMS to associate a UCC 128 bar code, which has a unique serial number that can be put on cases, with an EPC number. This will help companies make the lengthy transition from RFID to bar codes. "For now, there will be both RFID and bar code," he says. "We're providing software to do one or the other or both for the foreseeable future."

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