Copper Cable Provider Improves Inventory Management and Security

By Bob Violino

Progistix deployed an active RFID real-time location system (RTLS) to track large reels at its 400,000-square-foot yard.

Progistix, an SCI company, is a third-party logistics provider for businesses in Canada that require end-to-end product lifecycle management. The company manages a 400,000-square-foot yard in Toronto that serves as a main hub for storing and distributing copper communication cables and other networking assets for communications network providers in Ontario and Quebec. Each cable reel weighs up to six tons, and each type of cable has its own unique characteristics, which make it suitable for a certain type of network usage. The yard contains 116 different types of copper cables, and it can store as many as 3,000 reels.

Progistix had been managing the yard with a paper-based system. But on occasion, reels would be returned to the wrong location or would be reported as missing for various reasons. "There was no [easy] tracking of reel movement," says Yvan Bourbonnais, Progistix's general manager.

Progistix uses an active RFID real-time location system to manage copper communication cable reels at its Toronto yard.

An incoming reel would be assigned to a location within the yard, and a paper tag identifying that location would be affixed to the reel. Each reel was placed in a row and identified on a grid. When the company received an order for a certain type of cable, yard supervisors would manually identify the reel's physical position on a printed grid, and then workers would use a forklift truck to retrieve the reel. Once a piece of cable was cut from the reel to meet a client's order, a new location would be assigned for that reel, a new paper tag would be affixed and the reel would be returned to the storage yard.

"In the event that a reel could not be located, the supervisor would print the reel tag, which contained pertinent information including last know location, reel number, reel size and expected cable type," Bourbonnais says. "This would then be used to conduct a full physical inspection of all reels of that size in the 400,000-square-foot yard until the reel could be located."

Security was also an issue. Copper is highly attractive on the market, Bourbonnais explains, and Progistix had to guard against theft and ensure that removal of copper cables from the yard was authorized. Product shrinkage was a problem for the company, he says.

In April 2011, Progistix deployed an RFID-based real-time location system from Guard RFID to improve inventory control of the cables, as well as to reduce shrinkage.

A Reel Solution
In 2010, Progistix's management determined it was a good time to consider deploying technology and new processes that would provide better inventory control and improve security. They sought a system that could confirm a reel's presence in one of the yard zones, and a motion detector that would automatically trigger an alarm in the event that reels were being transported, moved or manipulated within or from the yard without pre-authorization.

The RFID tags are affixed to all metal and wooden cable reels when they're received at the yard.

From the beginning, the company considered RFID technology. A few years earlier, Bourbonnais had attended a seminar about RFID, and became interested in using the technology to track cable and other assets. "We were confident [that we could] obtain better results than traditional security features because of the motion sensor technology" available in an RFID solution, he says. "The other technology we considered was GPS. But we eliminated it in the interest of cost."

In August, the firm began exploring systems on the market, and in November it selected an active RFID solution from Guard RFID. Progistix chose an active (433 MHz) system because the tags can be detected at distances of hundreds or thousands of feet and are self-powered. In addition, Guard RFID's Industrial Tags (IT-2BLF) feature motion-detection capability, so they can transmit information about movement within the yard.

The entire RTLS solution—including tags, readers and software—was developed and supplied by Guard RFID (the system is now known as AllGuard Yard Management). Operations management at Progistix, supported by IT, worked in collaboration with Guard RFID to customize the solution for Progistix's specific needs. "We had to come up with a balance between features and capacity and cost," Bourbonnais says, "and the team proposed the solution that we have in place today."

The RFID tags are associated with and affixed to all metal and wooden cable reels when they're received at the yard. The tag data includes the type and size of each cable, as well as its assigned location within the yard. The Industrial Tag has a built-in magnetic base that allows for instant attachment to metal objects (screws can be used for mounting to non-magnetic materials). The tags are designed to be extremely durable and suitable for use in areas that are exposed to environmental extremes and harsh handling.

There are 18 Yard Tag Readers within the yard, which are not strictly assigned to the zone in which they are located, since all readers within a yard contribute to tag location. The readers are installed mainly on electrical poles at a height of approximately 6 feet, with antennas installed on top of each pole.

There are 18 Yard Tag Readers installed mainly on electrical poles, with antennas on top of each pole.

Each of the two security gates is equipped with a Yard Tag Exciter to detect tag reels instantly as they approach the gates. Progistix complemented the system with traditional security equipment in the yard, including alarm wires and video cameras.

Guard RFID's Argus Middleware Engine provides all tag- and system-management capabilities, and stores status information in an SQL database. A Guard RFID software application runs on multiple workstations throughout the facility.

Progistix's supervisors are responsible for monitoring eight zones within the yard, each with approximately 80 to 100 reels. When a yard supervisor needs to locate a particular cable reel, he types in the part number or name of that reel, and the system shows the reel's general location on a map of the yard. All cable reels are handled by forklifts, due to their size. Forklift operators receive information from yard supervisors regarding the location of a given cable reel.

"Because of our decision to limit the cost, we had to trade off the precision of the detection," Bourbonnais says. "The current setup indicates that the cable is in a section of the yard, but not in a precise location. This is acceptable, since the main goal is to ensure the cable presence in the cable yard."

In addition, each tag contains a motion sensor, enabling it to report any movement of the reel. This provides confirmation that the correct reel is being picked up for processing. As the reels are taken out of the yard en route to customer locations, they are automatically detected and recorded by the system, and the yard inventory is updated in the RFID system.

Each of the two security gates is equipped with a Yard Tag Exciter to detect tag reels instantly as they approach the gates.

If a reel can't be located, security is contacted and an investigation is launched, including a review of security camera footage. If a reel is misplaced within the yard, the supervisor can use Guard RFID software to determine the size of the reel, which can help narrow down the search field.

If there is any unauthorized movement of a reel past a security gate, RFID readers detect the movement and an alert message is immediately sent to a cable shift supervisor. The supervisor can determine whether the reel was supposed to be shipped, using warehouse-management software, and physically investigate the area to ascertain why the reel has been moved. This could be a security issue or a matter of selection error.

There were a few challenges to overcome. The motion sensors, for example, were too sensitive, and alarms were going off at the slightest movement of cables. Guard RFID had to test various tags before settling on one that was not overly sensitive but could detect movement.

The companies began implementing the system in December 2010 and completed the deployment in April 2011. Progistix and Guard RFID then spent roughly two months fine-tuning and testing the system. In addition, Progistix carefully trained management and personnel in the system's use.

Reeling Off the Benefits
Progistix has RFID-tagged 1,400 reels and has roughly 2,000 tags in stock. One of the biggest benefits of the system is the inventory accuracy and inventory control the company has gained, "which was the main motivation to invest in this technology," Bourbonnais says. "We added some administrative time [in operating the system], but we possibly compensate for it by reducing the time to search for reels or investigate for a disappearance. The fact that we have a better control of our inventory results in service enhancements for our customers."

All movements of reels are recorded automatically, so managers have access to information such as which cables are needed the most. With the greater control of assets, Progistix has significantly reduced cable shrinkage within its yard. Shrinkage results between 2006 and 2010 averaged 0.51 percent, and the shrinkage average has been maintained at 0.075 percent since the implementation.

Based on the benefits achieved, Bourbonnais says, the deployment has been well worth the investment of $400,000, including development, hardware, installation and other expenses, as well as the implementation challenges. "Our business case showed a five-year payback, based on reduction of inventory write-off," he states. "The main justification was the importance of investing in the security to protect our clients' assets."

After four years of using the RFID system, Bourbonnais adds, Progistix is now in the process of evaluating the possibility of increasing the number of readers in the yard to obtain more accurate location data.