The distribution and logistics industry is never static — new ideas and technologies are regularly pushing boundaries in every aspect of product delivery. While the purpose of the industry and how it operates at a macro level does not change, the details of how products get from point A to point B evolve with each industry advancement, working towards the goal of improving delivery speed, decreasing the margin of error, and protecting inventory from theft and loss. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is currently one of the most powerful tools turning the industry on its collective head with new ways to improve operations.
Radio Frequency Identification
RFID is a wireless serial number identification system that relays information via radio frequency. It is a type of automatic identification (auto ID) technology that provides accurate real-time data while decreasing the amount of labor and time needed in logistics settings. Most RFID systems operate using a “tag” consisting of a microchip connected to a radio antenna mounted onto a substrate. This remotely connects individual products to the internet, which stores in depth information detailing each item. This allows the entire supply chain to know exactly what and where the inventory is.
Two types of RFID systems exist. Active RFID systems include a transponder that is placed on products. The transponder is made up of a microchip and an antenna. The computer reads the tag to access information from the product transponder. These typically work well for larger assets such as long-distance transport containers or cargo containers.
Passive RFID systems do not have transmitters on them. They simply reflect an identifying signal back to the reader antenna at which the radio waves originate. With passive RFID systems, the computer either stores or has access to a larger database, which the returning identifying signal routes the system through to extract details about the product. Because passive tags do not have a power source or transmitter, they require no maintenance. This makes them considerably less expensive.
Often, the supply chain utilizes a combination of both active and passive systems to provide greater visibility and details on products in real time. Coupling these systems with GPS can greatly reduce theft and item loss.
How RFID Works
All RFID systems, both active and passive, comprise two parts: the interrogator(also referred to as a “master”) and a tag (also called either a “transponder” or a “slave”). Each tag has a unique identification code. Data is shared between the readers and tags using radio waves. The interrogator either processes the signal the tag is broadcasting, or asks the tag for a code. It then decodes the transmission and sends the new data to the computer. Next, the computer either records the information or goes through the inventory database to look up the tag ID, where it will find instructions for further action. If active tags are being used, the computer may also instruct the interrogator to add additional information to the tag.
Passive tags generally cost less. In addition to not having any internal power source, they have limited data storage, are read-only, and have a limited read range.They serve a function similar to that of barcodes, acting, acting as identifiers for individual products. The database the reader directs the computer to contains any necessary information.
The more expensive, active tags, which have their own power source, are useful for longer and much more complicated read applications. Often, they have upwards of 1 MB of storage space, making them self-contained databases. This storage space allows room for recording instructions for automated systems upon tag arrival at a location. They do burn out over time, however, and have a lifespan of only five to 10 years.
There is no current standard for what frequencies are used throughout the world, and telecommunications authorities regulate bandwidth availability differently in each country. This, in addition to how frequency affects transmission range and speed, demands that shippers replace tags on items being shipped internationally, that tags be before being shipped out of their country of origin in anticipation of the frequencies used to identify inventory in each country, or that frequencies all adapt to a universal standard.
Standardization is progressing, however, and this is only a temporary challenge, which logistics companies such as Hollingsworth are already adept at working around. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has already been long at work establishing technical standards for RFID. Industry specific groups such as the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) are also developing their own RFID standards based on ISO efforts.
Whom RFID Can Help
While RFID has already been helping large companies for a long time, it is in no way restricted to big business. Walmart already requires that its suppliers use RFID so that they can immediately identify inventory upon its arrival, but RFID’s application goes well beyond logistics. It automates toll-lane payments, allows speed purchases for gas, and enables you to wave a card to enter a building. While it may sound futuristic, the technology is nothing you don’t already see in daily use.
Hollingsworth is already using RFID tracking strategic processes to optimize inventory placement for industries such as apparel, automotive, aerospace, and more. RFID starter kits are available, making the transition relatively painless for any size of company to adapt the technology.
The Benefits of RFID
In terms of logistics, RFID is an invaluable tool for streamlining the product pipeline from the beginning to the very end. Hardware and software suppliers are only beginning to take full advantage of the capabilities of RFID, designing technology that ties it directly to warehouse management systems (WMSs) to create a remarkably efficient operation.
Complete systems are able to track the location and inventory housed on pallets, forklifts, and shelves in a warehouse along with the entire history of every item, making them especially useful in maximizing efficiency in a closed-system warehouse. This even extends to stocking shelves in retail stores, allowing businesses to receive automated notices when stock is beginning to run low for certain items.
All of these benefits fall into three primary categories: improved asset visibility, theft and loss prevention, and improved productivity.
Improved Asset Visibility
RFID-assisted tracking allows you and your staff to immediately find the location of any and every asset across all of your warehouses.
Interrogators can read an RFID tag from any location in the facility, which means that employees immediately know the location of every item and the quantity available.
Having such improved visibility enables supply chain businesses to eliminate issues that stem from poor organization, processing oversights and mistakes, or misplaced materials. Processing is automated with the scanning of each item’s tag, and once they’re in the system, you can find items anywhere within the facility with the touch of a button.
Theft Loss and Prevention
Because of the immediate response when tracking items within a facility, you can locate items and identify their conditions instantly. This allows for automated delivery confirmation and notices that prompt distribution and replenishment — no matter where they are within the supply chain.
Such razor-sharp accuracy shaves down the room for error or theft to near nonexistence. RFID systems track every single movement of every single asset in your facility, providing complete confidence that all inventory and pallets are accounted for at all times. This stops counterfeiting, maldistribution, theft, and loss in their tracks.
Employees will never have to worry about losing important equipment or incorrectly or inadequately distributing stock, and the improved organization translates into greater productivity and profit.
RFID technology allows staff to find inventory without needing to be right in front of it, saving time and improving organization efforts. Tasks like searching for tools and equipment, counting inventory, and scanning thousands of individual barcodes are completely eliminated, freeing up time for more important tasks, greatly increasing task speed, and reducing the necessary labor.
RFID and Shipping
All of the benefits described above apply to shipping as well. Having immediate, real-time insight into inventory’s location, quantity, history, and destination makes for an extraordinarily efficient logistics operation.
In the context of shipping and receiving, this translates into:
- Tracking reusable assets and shipping containers:
- Adding RFID tags to shipping containers and other reusable assets and including them in an automated closed circuit provides logistics companies such as Hollingsworth with an exceptionally fast turnaround, as every aspect of the job from start to finish is expedited with pinpoint accuracy.
- Real-time accurate information about every movement of goods throughout your supply chain:
- Accurate real-time data eliminates variables from the equation and allows you to make knowledgeable decisions. If you can access your database remotely, you can even do this from any location.
- Tracking traffic:
- Tracking traffic patterns with 100 percent accuracy allows for streamlined planning of loading and unloading operations, such as cross-docking or double-stacked forklift loads working in regular circuits to drop off items at different locations in one lap.
- Perfect accuracy:
- Because the system reads the tags of each individual item, containers and pallets will always hold the right goods, in the right quantity, on the right truck. A simple checklist program will allow you to cross-reference the manifest and the RFID-scanned cargo, supplying an immediate answer to whether the load is correct or not.
RFID Is for You
Whether you run a large or small business, the improved efficiency Hollingworth offers through RFID can streamline your efforts. Using RFID alongside GPS provides accurate, timely, and reliable services that keep your shipping and fulfillment efforts moving smoothly, without interruption or interference.
Beyond this, Hollingsworth is personally pushing the envelope with what is possible with RFID technology and warehouses to further realize i’s potential. One of Hollingsworth’s current projects includes designing robots to package parts in automatic bagging machines, further reducing labor time so that your essentials are on your shelves even sooner.
To speak with a representative about how Hollingsworth can improve your supply chain, call us at (313) 768-1400 or visit our Contact page.