Cemetery Monument Firm Reduces Labor, Errors

By Claire Swedberg

Sprung Memorial Group has cut the amount of time required for its inventory audits by 96 percent, and workers can use RFID handheld readers to quickly locate the correct type of stone to fill an order.

Sprung Memorial Group, a retailer of granite headstones and monuments, is employing EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags and handheld readers to track the cemetery monuments it stores, engraves and ships to customers. This not only reduces the amount of time that employees spend searching for inventory, but also ensures that the proper stone is always used for each order. The solution, provided by Microcomputer Consulting Group (MCG) and TracerPlus, has reduced the length of time required for Sprung's inventory audits by 96 percent.

Headquartered in Lindenhurst, N.Y., Sprung is one of the largest monument companies on the East Coast. The retailer receives granite slabs of a variety of types, shades or colors from its suppliers. Each stone is then stored until selected to fill an order, etched and shipped to a customer for a loved one's grave marker. MCG has provided software services for the company, including creating its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, to manage the flow of granite. However, because the stone slabs are so heavy, and so tightly packed in storage (many are laid flat and stacked as much as 10 feet high), Sprung found it difficult to identify every stone. Therefore, staff members had to spend a great deal of time conducting onsite inventory counts of the granite. If the proper slab for a specific order could not be located, the company has had to reorder it, resulting in excess inventory costs.

Kevin Hande, Sprung's receiving clerk, uses a Motorola handheld to read the RFID tag attached to each stone's base.

Sprung faced multiple inventory-related challenges. It can take many months to receive stone slabs from its suppliers, explains Theresa Montleon, Sprung Memorial Group's CPA, and the company thus must ensure that stock levels do not run too low. In addition, she says, the monuments cannot typically be placed in a cemetery during winter months, due to the challenges caused by ice, snow and freezing temperatures. With the long lead times and limited season, the company tries to anticipate which sizes and colors are popular, and then order a supply of those sizes ahead of time. "Keeping track of that inventory, which is cumbersome to move and not marked by the vendor, becomes a challenge," Montleon states. "As we grew in size, it became necessary to seek out a way to capture the size, shape, finish and color of each piece of granite held in inventory."

The granite slabs, each typically measuring 2 feet by 1 foot by 10 inches, are provided by suppliers in the Northeast and internationally. Upon arriving at the facility, the slabs are stacked up to 10 feet high within a warehouse and storage yard. When demand ramps up very quickly in the spring, workers often had to wander through the stacks of granite to identify the required type, color and shade of granite before moving stones off the stack with a mechanical lifting device. This, the company reports, was very time-consuming.

In addition, mistakes could be costly. Not only do clients have specific monument requests, but each cemetery has its own requirements regarding the kinds of stones that can be used, as well as the color. Any incorrect stone use could result in the need for Sprung to produce a replacement monument.

MCG and Sprung determined that RFID technology would enable Sprung to better manage its inventory of granite slabs. In spring 2012, the companies approached TracerPlus to develop a solution. TracerPlus selected tags from William Frick & Co. with Alien Technology Squiggle inlays, as well as Motorola MC3190-Z readers. TracerPlus also worked with MCG to test the tags on granite, in order to identify the best tagging methods, according to Ken Goldberg, MCG's president.

Because the warehouse and storage yard are not climate-controlled, the stones—and their tags—can become very cold during winter months and very hot during the summer. In addition, the placement of the tags themselves was challenging, says Brad Horn, TracerPlus' CEO. In many cases, a stone's sides are too roughly textured for proper tag adhesion. Placing the tag on a polished front or back surface of the stone would make reading that tag difficult, however, since another stone would likely be stacked directly over it. Therefore, says Kristin Comeau, TracerPlus' channel account manager, the firm needed a rugged tag that could be applied to a stone's base, which has a smooth surface. TracerPlus selected a standard Frick label with a special adhesive, to ensure that the tag remained affixed to the stone.

Additionally, TracerPlus provided its RFID software to receive and interpret read data, and then forward that information to MCG's ERP software residing on Sprung's server.

When Sprung receives a stone from its suppliers, a staff member inputs its description into the ERP system, attaches a tag to the stone, and reads the tag's unique ID number, linking it with the inputted data related to that slab.

Personnel then utilize a lift truck or crane to stack the stones in the warehouse or storage yard as they await an order. Once an order comes in for a specific type of stone, a worker can use the handheld reader to locate one in the yard or warehouse. The employee can then read the tag's unique ID number and link that information with the order in the software. In the future, Sprung may opt to extend the technology's use to its shipping process.

If the company needs to search for a specific stone, a staff member can input that type and size, and then periodically walk through the site, collecting data indicating what inventory is on hand at the facility. He or she walks among and around the stacks of granite and reads each tag, thereby updating the ERP software. Management can then access that data to determine whether a particular product needs to be reordered.

The company previously required a full eight weeks for workers to walk through the stacks of thousands of stones and visually identify every slab in each stack. That process now takes two days, the company reports—and most of that time is spent simply walking around the many tall stacks, which are very densely packed so that aisles between the stacks are quite narrow.