RFID Solution Is Watertight for North Sails Facility

The global sail manufacturer and service provider tracks the location and status of around 1,000 customers' sails at one of its lofts, using UHF RFID technology from A2B Tracking; the company plans to expand the system's use to some of its other 150 lofts around the world.
Published: October 5, 2018

International sailmaker North Sails has leveraged RFID technology to make inventory management of 1,000 sails automatic at its largest facility. With the technology, provided by A2B Tracking, the company now knows which sails are located at its site, and where. It can thereby ensure the status of each sail’s repair order, locate a particular sail when needed and enable customers to pick up sails outside of normal business hours (on weekends, for instance), when boat owners are most likely to require them. The solution employs UHF RFID tags affixed to every sail being serviced, along with handheld RFID readers, two fixed reader portals and A2B Tracking’s cloud-based software.

North Sails is one of the largest sail-making operations in the world, with 150 lofts throughout 29 countries. It not only makes sails used on racing and cruising sailboats, but also repairs those that are damaged (both North Sails’ products, as well as sails from other companies). Its largest loft, located in Rhode Island, can accommodate at least 1,000 sails for repair or short-term storage, says Eric Wakefield, North Sails’ service and sales manager.

An employee uses a handheld RFID reader to locate a specific sail.

According to the company, the sail-repair process can take a few days or as much as several weeks to complete. Repair work tends to be seasonal, and a larger volume of sails tends to come in during the summer months. Once they are received from a boat owner, sails are placed on the production floor or in a storage area. North Sails strives to provide fast service to those who arrive to pick up, drop off or inquire about a sail, but that traditionally meant sorting through the sails manually in order to identify the right one. In some cases, sails are transferred from one loft to another in a different part of the country, adding complexity to the inventory-management process.

Sails can vary in size from about 12 pounds to 2,000 pounds. They come in odd shapes and don’t always stack well, the company explains, so storing them can be an imperfect science—and identifying and counting every sail can be even harder. Despite that, the company conducted twice-annual inventory counts at each loft, which can last a full week or longer and is not only labor-intensive, but prone to errors. Sometimes, a small sail can fall behind a much larger one, or be stacked underneath others.

By the time the multiple days of inventory counting are complete, Wakefield says, the count may already be inaccurate since sails will have been moved, taken or added to inventory during that span of time. There was also the question of finding an asset quickly when a customer arrived to pick it up. In some cases, boat owners may leave a sail for a full season or longer, then arrive unexpectedly to pick it up. He says he has had to replace sails, build new ones or spend exhaustive hours looking for one brought in months or even years prior.

Wakefield says he has been aware of RFID for a decade or more. “I was reading about RFID 10 years ago,” he states, “trying to figure out how we could introduce it to manage sails inventory.” The technology initially seemed too expensive, however, as most companies offered solutions that cost approximately $150,000. “For us, as a small location, that didn’t really work.” More recently, Wakefield adds, his firm began looking into A2B Tracking’s passive UHF solution, a cloud-based solution with a low cost for the infrastructure deployment, as well as a monthly software fee.

The solution, which was installed in the fall of 2017, consists of handheld Zebra Technologies RFID8500i Sled readers connected to Samsung smartphones, with A2B tracking software and an app, according to Peter Collins, A2B Tracking’s president and CEO. The system also features a fixed portal with built-in Impinj RFID readers.

When a customer arrives with a sail that requires repair, he or she brings it inside a bag, to which North Sails personnel attach a UHF RFID hangtag from Metalcraft. The unique ID encoded on the tag is linked to the data provided by the customer, including his or her name, along with the type of sail and the necessary repair work. That information is stored in A2B’s inventory-management system, as well as in North Sails’ own software. Workers then place the sail in a staging area on the production floor, or in storage.

North Sails’ Eric Wakefield

On a weekly basis, employees walk through the production floor and the storage areas with the handheld unit. The phone runs an A2B Tracking app that enables it to identify each tag read and then to link that tag’s ID number to the appropriate customer and repair order. As the system reads tags, inventory is updated and any missing sails are displayed on the app. If a sail is discovered to have been misplaced—such as having been put in storage when it should be in production—workers can address that change, thereby ensuring that the repair is accomplished on time.

When a customer comes in to pick up a sail (provided that it’s during regular business hours), a worker can use the A2B Tracking software to identify where the system last detected that specific sail. If any problems occur, the employee can use a Zebra handheld reader running A2B’s software algorithms, similar to Geiger-counter mode, and walk through the facility until finding the missing sail. This, Wakefield says, takes a process that might have required several days in the past, and accomplishes it within a few minutes while the customer is still onsite. All it requires, he notes, is that the user select the “Locator” function in the app and walk within 10 to 12 feet of the correct sail.

Peter Collins, A2B Tracking’s

The RFID technology is also being used to allow customers to pick up completed sail orders outside of business hours. The company provides an unlocked storage area in which sails awaiting pickup can be stored after customer pickups have been scheduled. An RFID reader at the door to the storage room captures the tag ID of each sail brought into or removed from the room, and can also determine the direction in which the tag is moving, based on the multiple antennas built into the reader. When software detects that the sail has been removed, that action prompts a text message or email to be sent to management, indicating which sails have been picked up. They could then, in turn, send a message to the customer, confirming the pickup.

For several decades, Collins says, A2B Tracking has focused its business model on using passive RFID tracking as an affordable, accurate and low-maintenance solution. The company has served the military market since the early 2000s, he adds, to help personnel track assets used in the defense sector. It is also located in Rhode Island, near North Sails’ facility.

The A2B Tracking system that North Sails has employed is a modified version of the solution A2B offers to the military. “This wasn’t custom-developed,” Collins says. In fact, the military uses the system in a similar manner, tracking tools and other high-value items, such as computers and electronics.