Many consider warehouse automation to mean a total shift from human workers to clunky robots rumbling up and down the aisles, tracking and transporting stock between locations. However, the truth of automating warehouse management couldn't be further from this stereotype. While robotics has a critical role to play in streamlining processes, the humble radio wave can have an equally profound effect on warehouse operations.
What is radio frequency identification (RFID)?
RFID is a radio wave-based technology used to monitor inventory. RFID tags differ from barcodes because tracking chips doesn't need to be in-line with barcode scanners to return data. This makes them more useful for operators trying to find stock quickly and easily.
RFID tags can also be 'active' or 'passive'. Active technology has a local power source (like an in-built battery) making it capable of operating hundreds of metres away from a reader. Passive RFID, meanwhile, relies on the radio emissions of a reader device to activate a geolocation reading and other essential documentation.
Based on a unique serial number connected to the tag, operators can access the full history of stored items. The advantages of RFID lies in how operators can tailor the technology to associate different datasets with a given asset. Beyond just geographical location, different types of RFID tags can be used to recall operational information like:
- The length of time an item has been kept in storage.
- Number of occasions stock has been accessed.
- Inventory status, such as 'awaiting pick up', 'held for customers' etc.
The advantages of RFID technology
RFID can have an impact on all aspects of your supply chain management, if executed properly. Here are some of the benefits of deploying the technology in your warehouse:
RFID and warehouse efficiency
RFID technology require less monitoring than any predecessor – you simply install the required number of tags in your inventory and start gathering data. But the primary efficiency benefit comes from the reduced time taken to gauge data on a given stock item.
Take, as an example, an employee in a retail warehouse tasked with finding and tagging the entire stock range of one shirt brand. Using traditional barcode scanners, the timeframe of this project would be extended by the employee moving between locations and scanning each item individually. With active RFID tags, this one employee could locate the physical location of multiple storage containers simultaneously and remotely alter any data needed.
RFID technology doesn't just save processing time, however. It also reduces the hours taken for human operators to complete inventory control tasks, meaning staff on the ground can be assigned to more value-added tasks such as communicating with customers or suppliers. All in all, RFID represents a step towards more workflow-efficient supply chain management.
RFID and reducing human errors
Automatic data logging and collation within RFID tags and reader devices eliminates the need for operator input, which reduces the risk of human error skewing data results. A minor change like this can significantly impact a business' warehouse management practices. University of Wollongong research on RFID's effect on Metro Group and Walmart's operations found the technology contributed to a lower rate of shelving errors than previously. This in turn reduces the risk of customers receiving the wrong goods and eliminates time required to identify where mistakes were made.
RFID and real time, data-driven insight
Tracking real-time product information is an attractive prospect in any industry, especially in the contemporary digital information-inspired decision making. Building up a detailed bank of critical data on your inventory can help operators to analyse broad patterns relating to internal warehouse management and key transport processes.
For example, using a databank of real-time information, warehouse operators can identify high levels of a certain kind of retail stock, such as blue jeans, and relay this information to retail outlets. This will inform sales strategies at the customer facing end of the supply chain while ensuring appropriate stock levels are managed.
What are the applications for RFID in warehousing?
Henry Brunekreef, KPMG's Director of Supply Chain and Operations Management, identifies that although the supply chain sector was open to RFID early, the cost was usually unfeasible for most. However, as the Internet of Things (IoT) age has progressed previously unobtainable technology has become a very real possibility for warehousing organisations.
There are a broad range of applications for RFID technology in warehouse management:
A warehouse could receive and store goods from dozens of suppliers simultaneously, which makes goods receipt and initial storage an essential task to get right in the first instance. Using RFID tags, operators can assign a unique serial number of a specific range of items, ensuring only certain kinds of products will be recalled with that precise code.
Having insight into where stock is located in a warehouse and how much of a given asset there is helps facility managers to optimise their space. This could involve reorganising storage containers to accommodate new stock, or coordinating certain zones by client. Whatever method of stock control works for your organisation, RFID technology gives you the supply chain insight to implement smarter processes.
The aim of any warehousing businesses is to ensure clients have all the information needed about product availability and delivery timeframes when making a purchase. RFID means operators have the history of a product to hand immediately, enabling them to track average delivery times and forecast periods of low availability.
Implementing RFID in your supply chain
Electronics company IDTechEx found in recent research that the global RFID market will be worth approximately US $13.4 billion by 2022. These barcode tags have near boundless potential for streamlining the operations of organisations spanning industry applications, scale and geographical location. This reflects the technology's essential character – a data monitoring measure that can track the location and condition of any asset instantly.
But RFID tags are just one tool that can help streamline warehouse management. Truly optimised supply chain processes come from clearly reimagining your business as a people-centred operation with the aid of technology, not defined by it.
That's where the Cohesio team come in. We boast years of experience in analysing our clients' precise needs and rolling out scalable and customised automation solutions to suit.
If you think you're Read-io for change, we are talking on the same Frequency and you just need help with IDentifying your needs – RFID could be the right solution for you. For more quality jokes and even higher quality insight, contact our team today!