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How to RFID-Enable a Forklift

Here's what you need to know before installing RFID interrogators on the forklifts in your factory, yard or distribution center.
By John Edwards
Jun 11, 2007—Like a cup and saucer or a pen and paper, RFID and forklifts are a natural combination. Adding RFID reader technology to a forklift can boost efficiency and cut costs, reducing the number of stationary interrogators needed at dock doors and other key locations. Here's a step-by-step look at what you need to know about analyzing, selecting and deploying RFID-enabled forklifts:

1. Understand the Technology
The easiest way to visualize an RFID-enabled forklift is to think of the system as a mobile interrogator that can also move objects, such as cases and pallets, around a site. Yet there's much more to it than that. An RFID-enabled forklift incorporates basic RFID technology: a transmitter, receiver and antenna, as well as a processor that decodes data and wirelessly communicates with a central computer. But the system's mobility means that to prevent misreads and the generation of erroneous data, it must also include technology that synchronizes its activities to objects and locations.

"It's not like the system that's fixed at a dock door, and that you can safely assume that all readings came from that door," says Joe White, vice president of product management and tag engineering for Motorola's Enterprise Mobility Business' RFID Division, located in Schaumburg, Ill. "In the case of a mobile reader, the importance of tying your read information to specific events becomes important." That's why RFID-enabled forklifts use devices such as proximity sensors and motion detectors to find tagged objects and pinpoint their location in the world.

Battery power—not usually a consideration with fixed interrogators—is vital to RFID-enabled forklifts. Most mobile RFID systems use rechargeable batteries that provide enough energy to power a full eight-hour shift. If a battery goes dead during a shift, replacing it is about as easy as swapping a cell-phone battery. "You just drop in a new battery,” White says, “and you're off and running again."

2. Build a Business Case
Many businesses use forklifts, but not all are good candidates for mobile RFID. To build a solid business case for the technology's adoption, it's important to understand the benefits RFID can deliver in specific environments and situations.

Unlike a fixed interrogator, which may be dedicated to a single dock door, an RFID-enabled forklift can serve any door that requires its presence. This ability allows businesses to distribute their reader resources more efficiently and cost effectively. "You can get by with fewer readers," White says. "Do I dedicate a reader to every single dock door—and I have 100 dock doors—or do I outfit my 12 forklifts with readers?"

RFID-enabled forklifts also tend to produce more accurate readings, thanks to tag and location synchronization, combined with focused, up-close reads. Fixed interrogators tend to blanket a wide area, increasing the possibility of cross-reads and data-collection errors. Overlapping reader coverage also boosts the likelihood of RF interference and slower response times.
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