Walter Knoll Boosts Accuracy for Product Shipment, Returns

By Claire Swedberg

The German furniture company is using a UHF passive RFID system to track when its products are manufactured, stored at its warehouse, shipped or returned, increasing the accuracy and efficiency of its supply chain.

German furniture manufacturer Walter Knoll AG & Co. reports that it has gained accuracy and efficiency in its shipping and receiving of goods, thanks to a radio frequency identification system installed at the company's Herrenberg manufacturing site and Mötzingen warehouse. The solution, provided by German systems integrator avus Services, employs RFID readers made by Motorola Solutions and Feig Electronic.

Walter Knoll produces up to 70,000 chairs, sofas, tables and other residential and office furniture items annually, and then sells those goods via dealers and showrooms worldwide. Approximately 3,000 pieces of its furniture are shipped to consumers who wish to try them out prior to purchase, or to furniture shops on a consignment basis, to be returned if unsold. If the trial or consigned items are not purchased, they are returned to Walter Knoll's warehouse after a specific period of time, and are added to a pool of sample furniture. Each piece must be inspected upon return, and its condition recorded and entered in the system—for example, if there is any damage to a specific item, this information is collected and stored.

Managing the location and subsequent shipping of new furniture is challenging, the company reports, while tracking each sample item's location and history is even more so. In the case of trial furniture, the company has tracked the items via bar-coded labels attached to each piece, according to Wilfried Weiss, avus Services' managing director, but the labels have often been either damaged or separated from the items, in which case the furniture must be re-identified and then re-registered into the system with a new bar-coded label. The bar-code-based system was time-consuming, Weiss reports, not just due to the labor required to scan each piece of furniture's bar code, but also the effort necessary to re-identify furniture with damaged or lost bar-code labels, and to then apply new labels.

In 2009, the company tested ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags as a possible alternative to the bar-coded labels, and the solution was deployed the following year using avus Services technology. The solution has expanded over time to include additional readers and tags. The firm has installed 12 RFID gates to date, and is tagging every item that it manufactures. Eight of the RFID gates are located within the Mötzingen warehouse, where goods are stored prior to being shipped to customers, and where re-usable trial furniture is stored. The gates consist of several fixed Feig LRU3000 readers installed to interrogate the RFID tags of each piece of furniture as it is shipped out to a customer or retailer, and again if it is returned. At the other gates, employees utilize a handheld Psion Workabout Pro 3 handheld device from Motorola Solutions to read each label's unique ID number as furniture passes through a particular gate. In both cases (fixed or mobile reader gates), the data is forwarded to avus Services software, which interprets the information and feeds it to Walter Knoll's back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, where it is then matched with such details as the name of the customer receiving or returning each item. In addition, Knoll's workers use the readers at its factory in Herrenberg to read tags on newly manufactured goods passing from the point of manufacture through storage and then onto a delivery truck.

An Avery Dennison EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag is applied to each furniture item before it is upholstered; thus, the tags are not visible on the finished product. The upholster mounts the transponder close to the position where Walter Knoll's printed label will be placed following upholstery.

At the factory, Weiss says, the tags are typically read at least five times—from the point of manufacture to shipment to the warehouse. The reads indicate, for example, when the furniture is assembled and packaged for shipment, when it is placed within a particular storage area, when it arrives at the loading dock and when it is loaded onto a truck.

The avus Services software collects read data and enables Walter Knoll's managers to know where each piece of furniture is located in Herrenberg, as well as when the items arrive or leave the manufacturing site or the Mötzingen warehouse. The software also tracks which furniture is dedicated for trial delivery. When a trial item returns from a customer, the warehouse staff reads the tags and can then enter any data about the furniture's condition, thereby creating an electronic record of when each item was returned, and whether it requires repair.

Once the data is received by the avus Services software, it is then forwarded to Walter Knoll's proAlpha management system, in which shipping order data is stored.

"The complete data exchange between the RFID solution and the production system,"
Weiss explains, "is conducted between the avus server and the [proAlpha] systems of Walter Knoll."

Using the RFID-based solution, Weiss says, makes it much easier for Walter Knoll to identify the trial furniture and verify that the correct item is being shipped or received. What's more, because staff members can examine a returned piece of furniture and enter any data regarding its condition directly into the system via the handheld reader, the company has a more accurate record of each item's condition and when it requires repair.

Furthermore, Weiss says, "Walter Knoll can easily take inventory at any time now," by having workers walk through the manufacturing site or warehouse equipped with a handheld reader.

In the future, the company hopes to use the technology to help personnel identify goods during the picking process, as well as link a specific item with the identification number of the truck onto which it is loaded (by manually keying the vehicle's ID number into the system and then reading the RFID tags of all goods loaded onto it). Down the line, the firm also hopes to extend the system for use by sales staff at furniture stores.