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Using RFID to Direct Employees

The technology alerts unskilled workers when routine tasks need to be performed, and also enables managers to confirm they've been completed properly.
By Mark Roberti
Sep 07, 2009Anyone who has run a retail store, factory or warehouse knows that it's often very difficult to get workers to do exactly what they're supposed to do—and it's even harder to confirm that they've done it. Managers can train low-wage employees who often work part time all they want, but with no way to monitor them, it's difficult to get them to comply. Radio frequency identification has the potential to change that in a powerful way.

Right now, most companies aren't thinking about using RFID in this way. They are stuck on the idea that it's simply a tool to track goods and assets. One firm that has deployed RFID to improve workers' productivity is the Australian tomato grower, d'Vineripe. The company is employing RFID technology to ensure workers perform a variety of tasks each day, including pruning, pollinating, de-leafing, pest and disease control, and picking (see RFID Helps Improve Agricultural Worker Productivity).

As each worker is given his or her daily assignment, the greenhouse's station manager reads an RFID tag specifically identified for the task using a handheld interrogator. The manager then reads another tag designated for the row or rows in which the laborer will work, linking that individual to that task and row. At the conclusion of the employee's task or shift, his or her tag is scanned to indicate that individual is finished working. The data is downloaded into the company's back-end system, where it can be compared against best practices for each task. This enables the managers to address particular problems, such as training or other issues related to a specific employee not working efficiently.

Retailers could adopt a similar system for replenishment. Today, many retailers rely on workers to take the initiative and scan bar codes on shelves that require replenishment. Some retailers create pick lists based on point-of-sale (POS) data. Either way, it's up to the worker to pick the items and report that they've been picked. If the worker says an item was picked and it really wasn't, there's no way store managers can detect the problem until the item fails to sell for a few days, or until someone spots the empty shelf.

RFID can change the equation by alerting people when tasks need to be performed. When an item is out of stock or about to become so, an RFID-enabled inventory system can send a message to a handheld computer used by store associates (POS data is less effective because when an item is stolen or misplaced, the system thinks it's still in stock). The worker can then be timed to see how long it takes him to replenish. As he takes the item from the back of the store to the sales floor, the tag is read confirming the item has been replenished. If the tag isn't read after a certain period, an alert can be sent to the store manager. Workers can be rewarded for replenishing quickly, retrained to be more efficient or fired if they consistently fail to replenish in a timely manner.

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