RFID Zones Enable Automated Tracking Solution for Warehouse

By Claire Swedberg

Asset Recovery Specialists is monitoring the movements of hundreds of pieces of equipment in its San Diego warehouse with an RFID system that detects the zone in which tagged items were last detected, thereby increasing productivity by 30 percent.

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Reverse logistics provider Asset Recovery Specialists (ARS) has saved 30 labor hours each week, while also boosting its order-production rate by 30 percent, thanks to an RFID system that tracks its inventory of pre-owned equipment. Having confirmed that the technology provides effective inventory data based on zones throughout its facility, the company next plans to track when each item is loaded onto a vehicle for customer deliveries. The solution is provided by A2B Tracking Solutions.

ARS buys, sells and trades pre-owned office products, such as copiers and printers that it receives from banks following leases to companies furnishing offices. The company typically keeps the equipment onsite for approximately 90 days at its four centers in San Diego, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Swedesboro, N.J.; and Seattle, Wash. At any given time, its largest facility in San Diego could have custody of 2,000 assets, says Randy Dillon, ARS’s president, with 100 to 150 items flowing through each day. Tracking them manually has been a time-consuming and error-prone process.

ARS buys, sells and trades pre-owned office products, such as copiers and printers.

The assets ARS buys and sells include copiers, phone systems, and medical, janitorial and warehouse equipment. The San Diego facility is the busiest of the four locations. Goods are delivered daily in varying amounts, ranging from a few dozen to hundreds, and staff members must keep track of each item that is received, stored or serviced, and then purchased.

When customers place orders, employees try to find each item quickly so it can be delivered to or picked up by those customers. To identify each item, ARS printed a visible inventory number on each label, but that required a visual check by personnel. If an item wasn’t where workers expected it to be, it could take up to several hours to locate that object.

To improve the efficiency of storing, locating and accessing equipment, Dillon says, “We explored RFID about five years ago, but at that time, it was so expensive it wasn’t realistic.” In early 2018, the company began working with A2B Tracking on an RFID solution that was designed to be affordable while providing the zone-based location of each item, based on where its tag was last read within the 28,000-square-foot facility. It deployed the system in March 2019.

As goods are received, a MetalCraft UHF RFID hangtag is attached to each item and is then linked to details about that product, including its serial inventory number, in the A2B tracking software. A2B Tracking installed Impinj xSpan Gateway RFID readers around its facility, mounted to walls. Staff members are equipped with Zebra Technologies RFD8500 readers linked to an Android-based smartphone running an A2B Tracking app, according to Darryl Layne, A2B Tracking’s VP of technology.

The company kept an aisle clear for vehicles to move products, then divided the storage areas into eight zones, with one fixed reader at the entrance to each zone on the lower floor, and another on the mezzanine level. Readers were also installed at the dock doors where good are received and tagged. As a piece of equipment is brought into the facility, it passes the reader mounted at the entrance to the zone in which it is being delivered, and that tag-read data is captured in the software and stored as the last known location for that item.

When a customer order comes in, staff members use their Zebra handhelds to locate every item. They receive a pick list for the order and can open each item in the A2B tracking app to view the zone in which it is stored. That zone-based data is sufficient to ensure a warehouse worker spends mere minutes locating that item within a zone.

ARS has applied RFID tags to nearly every item already stored at its facility, Dillon reports, but it still has more tags to apply before the system will be fully live. Once that is done, as each tagged item is moved to the dock doors for shipping, its tag will be read via a handheld reader one last time to decommission it. The tag will then be removed from the item so it can be reused on a new piece of equipment. The system also works for goods stored outside the facility in trailers. Those products receive an RFID tag, and the handheld readers enable the company to assign each item to the trailer, as well as locate it, by opening the trailer and interrogating the tags inside.

If multiple components or pieces of equipment are part of a group, that information can be stored with the RFID tag ID in the A2B Tracking software. In that way, if an individual is taking one item to be sold to a customer, he or she can view in the handheld app, or in software on a desktop computer, that it should not be separated from other items in its group.

A successful RFID deployment requires customization for the needs and resources of the company using it, Layne says. ARS and A2B considered a variety of options for managing the inventory, including using handheld readers only. A real-time locating system (RTLS) was never considered due to the high cost of such a deployment. “Once we came up with zoning,” he states, “we knew it would be a good match.”

For ARS, the system may have already paid for itself by reducing the amount of time workers spend looking for goods for customers and inspectors. For instance, Dillon says, the company receives regular visits from bank auditors who need to view a random sampling of inventory, and the RFID system will make it simpler to provide a list of the items and their locations for those auditors. “I think we’ve already gotten our ROI [return on investment],” he says. Prior to the RFID deployment, Dillon adds, “We would have days with several guys looking for two hours for a piece of equipment. Now it can be done in minutes.”

The system also works well for unexpected drop-ins that had been disruptive to warehouse work in the past, Dillon reports. “Sometimes, we get people saying ‘I’m going to come in and buy a machine,'” he explains. “We’d have to drop everything to find it. Now we can literally find it in two minutes.”

The next phase of the company’s deployment will involve interrogating each tag as equipment is being loaded into vehicles, in order to update their status as shipped. That will enable the firm to address any customer claims regarding products not having been shipped, Dillon says, and will also make invoicing more automatic.