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Innovative Warehouse Solutions

RFID can improve efficiencies and deliver cost savings in warehouses.
By Toby Rush
Feb 01, 2010—Many warehouse managers and supply-chain consultants are skeptical that RFID can deliver value in the warehouse. But recent technology advances coupled with a new approach to deployment in warehouses can improve efficiencies and deliver a return on investment.

Initially, it was generally believed that case-level tagging was essential to meet retailer initiatives and provide business value. That meant manufacturers would have to equip their lines with RFID hardware to tag cases or even items and install RFID dock-door portals in their warehouses. They'd also have to change processes to handle outsourced manufacturing, third-party logistics providers, segmentation of stock-keeping units and so on. In other words, an RFID-enabled manufacturing and warehouse operation would require a significant investment in equipment and be a logistical nightmare with few clear benefits.

Today, we can tag at the pallet level and associate cases with pallet labels, drastically reducing tag costs, infrastructure and capital expenditures. If you have a distributed low-volume operation—or can't afford an automated data-collection system or support significant process change—you can track pallets using handheld RFID interrogators. The next level up is to RFID-enable warehouse dock doors to automate data collection at specific choke points. That allows you to track pallets as they go in and out of your warehouse.

But the best way to achieve warehouse efficiencies is to improve visibility within the warehouse. Accurate and automated RFID-enabled pallet tracking can deliver many warehouse benefits, including the ability to error-proof shipping, receiving and put-away, as well as improve labor productivity and customer satisfaction.

You can deploy a passive ultrahigh-frequency real-time locating system (RTLS). Systems that use phased array antennas can read tags from hundreds of feet and locate tagged pallets fairly accurately. The sweet spot for passive RTLS is open bulk storage warehouses or rack storage where location accuracies of roughly 5 feet to 10 feet will get the job done.

If you require better location accuracy, consider an RFID-enabled forklift truck solution. The forklift reads the RFID tags to identify the pallets. Stray reads have been drastically reduced by the use of advanced filters in RFID readers. There are two ways to determine truck—and, therefore, pallet—location. You can place metal-mount RFID tags on racks, or use an optical-positioning system, in which a camera mounted on the forklift reads 2-D bar codes on the ceiling, providing location accuracy to within inches.

The more accurately you can locate pallets in your warehouse, the more efficiencies you can achieve, but precision comes at a cost. The key to deploying an RFID system in your warehouse that will deliver an ROI is to identify your pain points and choose the most cost-effective option to help you eliminate them.

Toby Rush is president of Rush Tracking Systems (recently acquired by Pharos Capital Group), an RFID systems integrator and solutions provider based in Lenexa, Kan.
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