RFID on the Go

June 1, 2005
Few real-world applications for RFID show more promise than installing tag readers on lift trucks.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a natural fit with lift trucks. RFID's ability to gather data from moving objects, or while readers are moving, can give managers a continuous flow of real-time information. This increased visibility and traceability of material enhances scheduling, forecasting and other business processes, while allowing truck operators to focus on what they do best, driving vehicles.

Mobile data collection readers offer many advantages:

  • Rather than move a mountain of material past a reader, the reader does the traveling.
  • With tags on the material and the storage-location, timely confirmation of put away saves operator time by eliminating scanning or entering data on a keypad.
  • In a large facility, with numerous dock locations, capital can be saved by not installing RFID readers at every portal.
  • Multi-unit facilities encompassing millions of square feet can make the task of locating assets daunting. RFID can be used to track lift truck locations, easing compliance with government regulations with stringent asset inspection and reporting guidelines, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley.

But don't assume matching lift trucks and RFID applications will be easy. "The real challenge," says Mike Nichols, systems consulting manager, Intermec Technologies-(Everett, Wash.), "is the huge variety of lift trucks and the variety of applications. You have to begin with asking what kinds of lift trucks will be used and what [data capture] you want them to do."

The lift truck challenge
Applying RFID readers and aligning the antenna on one brand of lift truck, moving one brand of product, with the tags in a consistent spot, is not that tough to do. That, however, is rarely the case.

Generally, people want to read all of the products on the pallet; and to get a real payback on RFID, the rack location tag should be read as well. If location points are one level high it's not a problem. However, when there are three or more locations in a rack, separating the locationsand matching the correct one to the pallet or product being put away is more difficult.

Installing RFID readers on lift trucks offers some other challenges. Among these are the power of the antenna and the constant shifting of the field, or direction of the truck. When moving down an aisle, the reader might scan tags to its side as well as the load it is responsible for.

Use RFID to measure events, says Bob Eckles, industry marketing director, Intermec Technologies. "In managing the supply chain," says Eckles, "you want to know what happens when. These are things you expect to happen. If an event occurs that is not expected, and RFID will tell you that, you are able to deal with it more rapidly."

Practical application
At its Smart Packaging facility, International Paper (Memphis, Tenn.) has developed a system in cooperation with Matrics (now part of Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y.) to use readers on clamp trucks for tracking huge rolls of paper in its Texarkana (Texas) manufacturingand distribution facility. At the company's Texarkana mill, 1,600 paper rolls weighing from two tons to seven tons are produced daily and stacked on end, as many as eight rolls high. The warehouse makes about 5,000 moves per day, many times moving one roll out of the way to get to another. It's easy to understand how rolls could be misplaced.

A team from International Paper's Smart Packaging division, working with Matrics tags and readers and systems integration by ESYNC (Toledo, Ohio) took on the challenge of creating a system that could read through paper rolls sometimes 75-inches in diameter. The solution was to mount the readers on the grippers, or clamps of the lift truck attachment, and put the tag inside the paper's core to prevent damage to the tag.

"In addition," says Mark Brown, project manager, systems and services for International Paper's Smart Packaging business, "We have a grid of tags embedded in the floor through which we can gather data for tracking the location of the trucks. It allows us to follow specific rolls and evaluate the flow of material throughout the facility."

Brown says throughout 2004 many people were looking for ways to comply with mandates from retailers or the government. "Now, managers are looking for ways to drive business value using existing processes," he says.

Brown adds that many companies have "purchased" compliance for someone else's benefit. "The more times a tag can be read throughout the supply chain, the less expensive the tag."

This approach is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Just as touching the product fewer times makes material handling more efficient, reading tags with lift trucks at each point of movement improves accuracy and data flow.

International Paper developed its warehouse tracking system for paper rolls a couple of years ago. Since then, it has leveraged its knowledge to provide tracking systems for palletized goods and developed a business of helping others with RFID challenges.

"The readers on lift trucks read electronic product code (EPC) pallet tags and can track material throughout the warehouse," says Brown. "The lift truck solution combines the use of RFID to identify the pallet contents and the use of RFID and other, proprietary technologies, to monitor and report location and condition of the lift truck real time."

A benefit of the International Paper warehouse tracking system is that it fits into an existing system. "Our program can be integrated into any program and installed on any lift truck."

In the International Paper clamptruck application, complementary sensor arrays monitoring distance and heading through floor tags provide the truck's location in the warehouse as well as the specific product it's carrying. When combined with a warehouse management program, it provides the operator instructions for directed picks and put-away information as well as loading verification and other tasks.

Cost of installing a program of readers on lift trucks can only be done on a case-by-case basis, says Brown. "The return on investment is driven by the problem you're trying to solve. You have to ask where it hurts and how much does it hurt. Then target the area that will drive the most value.

"If your only goal [with RFID] is compliance, it's just a cost to you. You have to drive the use of the technology back into your processes and solve tangible business problems to create value."

Brown adds there were a number of valuable lessons learned from the Texarkana project the company was able to use in other projects involving RFID on lift trucks. He says learning to prepare equipment for the environment it will be exposed to was most valuable.

"It was a rugged and rough environment to be working in," Brown says of the Texarkana paper mill, "and we went through three generations of equipment before we realized it had to be hardened to the point of militaryspecification abuse."

He adds that the goal of the Texarkana project was increased inventory accuracy, however, in a wellthought out implementation you don't achieve a single goal.

"As a result of inventory accuracy," he says, "we streamlined our logistics program, realized capital labor savings, gained efficiency with our fleet of lift trucks-all basically for free as a result of our original target."

For a pilot project such as this, Brown says, determining exact ROI numbers is a challenge because so many variables occur along the way. "We had numbers on paper as you do for any project," says Brown. "However our actual return was so much higher than we expected because of the hidden benefits we hadn't expected. These are things you can't always quantify."

This lift truck reads electronic product code pallet tags and tracks every warehouse product movement. It combines the use of RFID to identify the pallet contents, with the use of RFID and other proprietary technologies to monitor and report location and condition of the lift truck in real time.

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