International Paper developed a warehouse tracking system (WTS) using radio frequency identification (RFID) to manage inventory at its Texarkana, Texas mill and warehouse.
The WTS uses the EPC Global’s Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards, ensuring compatibility throughout the supply chain.
Through the use of lift-truck-mounted RFID readers and proprietary tracking technology, inventory is traced to its location and the information is relayed to the lift truck operators in less than one second.
Surmounting the challenges
“These rolls of paper weigh tons and measure as much as 75 inches in diameter,” notes Piyush Sodha, CEO of Matrics, supplier of the tag and reader technology. “The only place you can put a tag on such an item is either on its surface or on the core, without ruining the quality of the paper. The problem with placing it on the surface is you can directionally shield that tag from being read, depending on which side the clamp truck might pick it up. The only logical alternative is on the core. The challenge is being able to go into the core, wake up a passive tag, and read it through so much paper and bring the data out of it.”
Once IP and Matrics found the best way to position a tag on the core, the second challenge was hardening the readers to withstand the punishment of a 24/7 paper mill warehouse. The readers, mounted on the clamp trucks, can now withstand 50 g’s of impact.
The third challenge was to track inventory locations throughout the warehouse. International Paper developed a proprietary tracking system that simultaneously identifies the roll and associates it with the lift truck’s location to within two feet so that every pickup and drop location is updated to the WTS automatically.
The WTS can also be integrated into pallet/case applications and is configurable to a broad range of internal and external warehouse operations. However, roll stock proved to be the toughest fit. Nevertheless, RFID tags proved more workable than bar codes.
“This is a bulk warehouse, so the first thing you have to recognize is that visually you can’t discern one roll of paper from another,” says Guillermo Gutierrez, manager of IP’s Smart Packaging Group. “If a bar code label falls off, which tends to happen in this environment, it becomes more difficult to track our inventory. With the velocity and speed of the operations, if you’re not following the bar coding process properly, you’ll lose your inventory.”
Lift truck operators don’t have to scan any more, now that RFID tags are read automatically upon engagement by the clamp truck. With antennas integrated with the clamp attachment and tags inside on the core, reads are more reliable.
“For us to capture the benefits and ROI of RFID, we need a 100 percent read rate,” Gutierrez continues. “Proper placement of the tags relates to radio frequency geometry. It’s also where you place the power of your readers. It’s the combination of those things where you find your sweet spot.”
Real world testing
The IP plant environment presented other challenges, as well. It was these challenges that led IP away from testing the technology in a sterile lab setting.
“When you run cables and antennas, and you have a complex system mounted on a lift truck, and the lift truck is in a rugged industrial environment, and you’re loading one to two tons of paper at a time into railcars and trucks, a system that works great in a laboratory may not deliver in the real world,” Gutierrez explains.
“This isn’t a plug and play for everyone,” he adds. “You’ll have product, facility and software-dependent configurations and you need to marry those to develop a solution that functions. We brought to the table people who have done that to scale in the real world, not in a lab or in a pilot. We sell paper and we do conversion to consumer and industrial packaging, so we bring a broad range of experiences in RFID implementation. That includes hardware and software integration.”
The Wal-Mart challenge
This is good advice for any manufacturer, especially those who need to respond to Wal-Mart’s RFID mandate by 2005. The chain store giant is asking its top 100 suppliers to use RFID tags and labels on all shipments by that deadline. IP’s example extends beyond roll stock. It applies to any lift truck environment.
“We wanted to make sure we were working with what we believe is a de facto standard, which is EPC,” Gutierrez concludes. “That will get more and more momentum, especially with [the] Wal-Mart [requirement]. We pursued a path that had the broadest value for the outside market, both to our current customers and customers who now need to work with the Wal-Mart mandate.”
Adds Tom Gestrich, senior vice president of International Paper’s Consumer Packaging Business:
“The Warehouse Tracking System is a testament to International Paper’s customer focus and the ingenuity of our employees. We overcame considerable challenges in moving concepts from a design and pilot phase to a fully functional and scaled warehouse solution that delivers value to our operations. This is a giant stride in EPC warehouse management, resulting in unique benefits within the four walls and flexibility for upstream compatibility. It will pave the way for IP to offer this solution to our customers.”
International Paper offers services
International Paper and ESYNC, a consulting and systems integration firm, have established a strategic partnership to provide RFID services focused on the Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards and other related auto identification initiatives. One example of their service offering is the RFID Strategic Assessment program, which is designed to assess the value of RFID at clients’ operations.
For more information, contact International Paper’s Guillermo Gutierrez at 901-419-4719, or ESYNC (www.esync.com) at 419-842-2210 or at [email protected]
For more information:
International Paper www.internationalpaper.com
Matrics (tag and reader technology) www.matrics.com