Companies Deploy Battery-Powered, RFID-Enabled Mobile Stations

By Claire Swedberg

Definitive Technology Group built a solution for an online retailer and is now marketing it for use by warehouses, data centers and healthcare facilities to capture inventory counts faster and more effectively than with handhelds.

RFID reader options vary from handheld models to fixed tunnels and gates, as well as forklift or tunnel-reading devices. But in some cases, companies need to perform fast-paced reading down aisles, such as in warehouses, with a solution that is faster than a handheld but more is nimble than a forklift.  Definitive Technology Group (DTG)'s RFID PowerStation was designed to meet that need, and the company plans to make the system commercially available this spring.

The station amounts to a mobile power source on wheels that can accommodate laptops, UHF RFID readers, printers and antennas. Thus, the company reports, its partners can sell solutions that are faster and more effective than handheld readers but are able to reach into tight spaces in a warehouse in ways that other readers cannot. The system was built in 2019 to serve one of its customers—one of the world's largest online retailers, which has asked to remain unnamed. The company had already used DTG's products and was seeking an RFID solution to help it manage its returnable transport items (RTIs) and packing materials.

DTG's line of mobile stations

DTG designed the system for that customer, and it is now making the technology commercially available through resellers. "We are unique in that we can create custom mobile workstation designs to meet the needs of our customers," says Steve Shaheen, Definitive Technology Group's founder and business operations head,. While there are numerous iterations of home-grown RFID reader carts, he says, they tend to be pieced together, unlike the product that DTG has developed. For that reason, Shaheen states, "We wanted to make this commercially available."

The Massachusetts-based business, launched in 2014, traditionally provides battery solutions that power mobile systems. The company developed a lithium iron phosphate hybrid battery system for the medical industry to enable the capture of electronic medical records (EMR) data. It then identified opportunities in material handling with power for laptops, printers and scanners, Shaheen says, for use in places such as warehouses.

The online retailer asked DTG for a mobile solution capable of counting items that were not part of its product inventory. The company wanted to count totes, reusable gaylord containers, corrugate cardboard and packing materials. "If they run out of these materials, nothing's shipping," Shaheen explains. The retailer had traditionally counted such items manually, which is labor-intensive and often inaccurate. A great deal of labor was consumed in ensuring nothing ever went out of stock, and DTG's mission in seeking an RFID-based solution was to reduce the time required for workers to count these items.

Steve Shaheen

The company developed the mobile, battery-powered cart and worked with the retailer to identify an RFID vendor that could provide the reader and antennas. "They, like us, were vendor-agnostic," Shaheen reports, adding that the firm developed a concept and a prototype within approximately eight weeks. The RFID PowerStation resulted, which was put through a proof-of-concept at five sites last summer.

Challenges are numerous for such a mobile reader cart, Shaheen says. "You need a mobile solution that's nimble," he explains, as well as "flexible to accommodate a variety of sites and a variety of layouts." The company built the cart to provide a height-adjustable array of antennas, while offering a battery system capable of supporting such equipment as computers and RFID readers, along with various printing needs, across multiple work shifts.

The PowerStation consists of DTG's hot-swappable battery solution, meaning the battery can be changed while the devices on the cart are powered on, enabling the cart to run continuously. The station can accommodate four RFID antennas on a telescoping pole, according to William Michalek, DTG's VP of channel development. The readers can blast energy both upward and downward, as well as from the sides, but to ensure the effective read zone is contained, users can manage the read range through filters and gains adjustments. The carts are designed to scan pallets measuring 4 feet by 4 feet, located 16 to 20 feet from the cart on both sides, Shaheen says.

Thus, for example, in a row of 10 pallets four deep, users could simply push the cart down the aisle at normal walking speed and read the tags on all of the pallets. "To do that manually takes an enormous amount of time," Shaheen notes. The system also supports a handheld reader with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity that could be used to extend the reach of a tag read, and to then forward the read data back to a server by connecting to software on a laptop stored on the cart. "There were instances where even the workstation couldn't get deep enough," he recalls, "and the handheld extended the reach of the workstation."

William Michalek

"This [workstation] device wasn't built to replace handhelds," Michalek notes. "It supplements the handhelds." Additionally, the company reports, because of its size, the cart is more maneuverable than a forklift. It stands 22 to 41.5 inches in height and is 30 inches wide, with a weight capacity of 75 pounds. The antennas can be directed both up and down to reach higher than the 10 feet of the unit's extendable pole, and it comes with an adjustable four-port RFID reader bracket.

Testing conducted by the retailer compared manual and RFID workstation inventory counting. Manually, the company was able to capture inventory information with 70 percent accuracy, and that resulted after a second count. With the PowerStation, the company claims, accuracy was achieved at 100 percent. The counts required 25 minutes manually but could be conducted within 17 minutes using the cart. That meant more than 25,000 totes can be read in less than 15 minutes, Shaheen says. The cart out-performed handhelds, he adds, proving to be more accurate and faster.

The beta testing across five sites ran for approximately six months. DTG engineered some modifications to the antenna mount to ensure it will not extend beyond the cart's width, and it made the cart materials lighter. The cart can now be used for any inventory-counting application, according to the company, by providing cycle counts in warehouses or stores, and it can also be employed at hospitals. In addition, Michalek says, the workstation helps to reduce the risk of injury for warehouse workers who might otherwise be manually counting inventory. The workstation is ergonomically designed, he adds, and makes reading large-scale inventories "easier, safer and far more efficient.

The company is currently working with a manufacturer to provide the system for tracking goods within a factory setting. It is also being used for counting PPEs and masks at hospitals. "It's this powerful RFID system on wheels, Shaheen states. "When companies need that long range [and] wide read zone, that's what the PowerStation can provide." Moreover, companies are using DTG's battery system to power their RFID-reading equipment, such as readers deployed on forklifts. However, he adds, DTG has no intention of becoming an RFID company. "We're here to support RFID companies."