RFID: Too Heavy a Load

Achieving a return on investment from equipping lift trucks with RFID requires a lot more than installing a few readers.

As information technology evolves in warehouses and distribution centers, everything in those environments becomes a food source for the everhungry beast called ERP—the enterprise resource planning monster. Today's lift trucks are a major source of that nutrition. Equipped with bar code readers and RFID technology and linked to a warehouse management system, today's lift trucks are as much a part of a company's data management hierarchy as its servers. They're also all the more vulnerable to poor caretaking.

Data gathering depends on an infrastructure of well-choreographed maintainers. It's an energy intensive process. Mark Brown is a former project manager with International Paper's now defunct ASURYS Group, and is now a consultant with RFID4U, which specializes in RFID implementation. I recently heard him speak about his experience with RFID-equipped lift trucks.

Here's the message I came away with: If it was just about attaching an RFID terminal to a lift truck, International Paper (IP) might still be using these specially equipped vehicles. However, as Brown will tell you, for a company to get ROI, you need to drive process change. That includes system maintenance.

International Paper achieved an ROI on its RFID investment using a system that automatically tracked where inventory was in its warehouse and what cargo trucks were carrying. These data were fed automatically to the inventory system via RF interrogators embedded in the lift trucks' clamps. Unfortunately the system at International Paper was shut down for lack of internal support.

"There was an ROI associated with it but, when it comes to engineering, the implementation side of the business was not what IP wanted to do," Brown explains.

Though ASURYS is no more, International Paper is still focused on RFID for customers. Like a lot of new technology investments, achieving an ROI requires an internal support group. Brown admits, however, that the earlier generations of the system were more maintenance heavy than they should have been, but the final version included much better self-diagnostic capability.

In a well-maintained system merging RFID with lift trucks, the truck will identify its location and the inventory it's carrying. The system will then automate tasks the driver shouldn't have to do. "We wanted drivers to do what they do best: drive," Brown says.

Recounting his experience on RFID Switchboard, an RFID web portal (www.rfidsb.com), Brown offered the following advice:

  • Ask the equipment OEM how much shock and vibration its reader is rated to withstand.
  • The interrogator should not impede the driver's visibility but should be mounted as close to the antennas as possible, so cable lengths can be kept short and damage to the cables can be kept to a minimum.
  • To reduce the number of cables used, consider a reader capable of PoE (Power over Ethernet), so a single wire will handle everything.
  • Mount the interrogator so it keeps a low profile to reduce contact with cargo and use shock-absorbing material.
  • Make sure operators can turn off inactive readers using a single command. Otherwise they will get a lot of stray reads, high amounts of ambient noise, and shorter equipment life.

Plants and distribution centers aren't friendly to poorly prepared people or equipment. If you want RFID-enabled lift trucks that will feed an uninterrupted supply of good food to your ERP beast, be smart about adding those smarts.

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