Act local – think global

5 May 2008

Every business today is in reality a part of a global supply chain and actions in the warehouse now could determine future agility and flexibility.

We live in a consumer environment that hates mistakes. The fast-paced nature of life and the appetite for instant gratification means that when we want something, buy something, or order something we want it to be exactly what we requested and have it as soon as possible.

When you order a product, you set off a chain reaction of events that most likely will end up at a warehouse where the item or component of the item will have to be picked and delivered. And there’s a whole set of processes carried out to ensure the right thing is picked, packed and distributed properly.

Often, things can go wrong. The wrong box is shipped or a pallet with goods on it goes missing.

So, how best to manage the warehouse and what technologies are available?

Currently, barcoding dominates the warehouse supply chin. RFID has of course been talked up as a panacea for warehousing and supply chain ills for some time now, but has it got the technology chops to sustain a busy warehouse environment?

One man who thinks it doesn’t is Ronan Clinton, managing director of Heavey RF.
He said RFID and the warehouse is not a good mix. “RFID is a fantastic technology that I admire and it has many uses. I also understand the desire people have to see RFID in place.

“If everyone went RFID, however, you would be creating bigger problems throughout the global supply chain. To synchronise at that level is such a complex task that just trying to arrange and manage it would be incomprehensible to the majority of companies out there.”

Clinton said that any company that stocks products should know what they have and what they sell and barcoding is still a very quick and easy technology to implement in terms of tracking products through a warehouse.

“Barcoding isn’t broken, so I don’t see the need to fix it,” said Clinton. “Furthermore, technology has improved and barcoding is now hugely scientific. I think the only real benefit RFID has over it at the moment is that it doesn’t require line of sight. But, with barcoding, you are adding a level of accountability because you have to point and click.”

Despite the hype of RFID, Clinton said many warehouses are moving towards voice-directed logistics. This allows warehouse staff to be hands- and eyes-free, as they are directed by a device to the pick locations. “We’re finding it’s producing phenomenal results in all installations. We feel it’s going to be the technology of choice for many years to come. RFID will not displace voice-directed logistics — rather it will support it for validation.

“People need to lose the ideas of RFID in the supply chain. In warehouses and the supply chain, voice-directed work and the use of barcoding is where the big benefits will be.”

Victor Donnelly, marketing manager of VisionID, said costs associated with RFID are unfeasible and barcode technology remains the favoured child. He did, however, point out that all is not lost for RFID, as it is still a trusted source for inventory tracking, due to the volume of information retrievable from RFID tags. “As a consequence, many manufacturers will track pallet movement via RFID and retain the trusted barcode system to read the packages within each pallet.”

Having said all that, Donnelly still feels the RFID element within a warehouse complex is probably the best-favoured technology for stock control of larger multi- euro valued items. However, as stated earlier, this technology is best suited to large container or pallet tracking, as preferred to individual items within a container or pallet.

“A recent VisionID project for a new pharmaceutical facility saw engineers in Mexico tracking high-value components at a site in Co Cork. This technology allowed engineers to ensure that high-dollar valued assets were being tracked accordingly and were being placed in situ at specified times. It also allows for accurate updates on how a multimillion dollar engineering project is developing, in real time, from anywhere in the world.”

Declan Torsney, general manager for Zetes Ireland, said there are many RFID success stories in industry today, especially at the pallet or tote level, rather than RFID being used to identify individual items.

Torsney believes RFID is a worthwhile investment for retailers or food manufacturers concerned about food safety and can also used to identify roller cages to minimise theft and losses.

“When deciding on which method of identification to adopt, companies need to make the decision, based on a number of factors such as what is the value of the items to be traced? What could be the cost of human error? Would it be necessary to be able to easily update or rewrite information to the identification tag? RFID is rewritable, but barcode is not. What kind of environment conditions need to be taken into account, ie in a dirty or very cold environment, it is difficult to rely upon barcodes.

“We don’t see that RFID will take over completely from barcodes; it is a complementary technology. In particular, we are seeing that RFID could be combined very effectively with voice-picking technology, for instance, to achieve automatic verification and avoid the picker having to always verify with speech that they are at a particular location or that they have completed a task.”

Torsney said the key to managing the warehouse is to get the right product in the right location and knowing what quantity you have in stock. This, he said, could be achieved in very complex environments by placing an RFID rag on every pallet and then employing an RFID reader at every location to marry the product to the location or the pallet.

“Working in this way would avoid clutter within the warehouse and make the whole operation much tidier and slicker because the paper trail usually required would be eliminated.”

By Eamon McGrane