More and more, technology is improving the way work is performed in manufacturing, production, warehouse and distribution facilities. One of the most significant changes came with the introduction of barcode technology and scanners to track products being received in the door, and being processed out the door. Initially corded scanners were used at receiving and shipping stations to accomplish this transition from ‘pen and paper’ processes. Then came wireless scanner technology; not only did this make receiving and distribution easier (no longer bound by the cords) but in some cases reduced equipment requirements since the same scanners could be used for either function.
Soon thereafter some ‘warehouse guru’ recognized that more could be done using this technology; with the addition of handheld computer capability, the wireless scanner devices could provide information to aid workers with not only receiving of merchandise, but proper location and put-away of products. Of course if they could be used to help put products away, then surely they could also be used to fulfill orders by directing workers to the proper location of the merchandise, picking products to get them ready for shipping/distribution, and even recording their ‘out the door’ status.
About the same time some ‘manufacturing expert’ recognized that if you could get a barcode on the first component of every item in production, and then track that barcode through the entire process, you could easily identify where a specific product or production order was in the manufacturing flow. In fact, you could even measure the length of time it took for each step to be accomplished. While some products did not lend themselves to attached barcodes, you could print a ‘traveler ticket’ that progressed with the product and scan the barcode on the traveler as a product entered into and exited from each phase of production.
Suddenly Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) appears on the market; among its first uses was the prevention of theft such as shoplifting. If a concealed RF tag could be put on the merchandise, then a radio transmitter near the store doors could activate the chip inside the tag, and a tiny electrical current be detected by the transceiver also at the door; the result, bells, alarms, whistles, flashing lights and perhaps even fog hons sound off. Who among us have not had that experience when the clerk at the checkout counter forgot to deactivate (or remove) the RFID tag on/in our merchandise?
Take this technology another step, but at ‘highway speeds’; what if the RFID tag was on our windshield and the transmitter and transceiver mounted over the highway exists or toll stations. No longer would it be necessary for every vehicle to stop and take a toll ticket and then pay the toll, we could not associate the RFID tag with a specific vehicle and then just invoice the vehicle owner. Today a majority of our turnpikes work using this technology.
When RFID is applied at the start of the manufacturing process, then we can detect progress without the need for workers to scan barcodes in and out of their station or work zone, we can simply track when the product moves from one location to another. And because we can include specific information in any given RFID tag, like serial numbers and expiration dates, we can track what products in stock should be sold by when, and which were sent where in every order fulfillment. And RFID doesn’t stop there, if each workers’ ID badge contains an RFID chip, then we can determine where every worker is at a given point in time, at which station in the manufacturing process, or in which warehouse picking products, or work zone for safety compliance purposes. Furthermore, when did a specific worker come in the front door, and when did they leave? That is a time clock without a time clock technology. I mean how did you think the computer on Star Trek always knew exactly where every member of the Enterprise crew was at on any given request by Captain Kirk?
Despite the advantages of both of these technologies, many manufacturing, production, warehouse and distribution companies are still not making use of either of these methodologies. In some cases, they do not understand the advantages over their old ‘pen and paper’ methods, or they cannot see the cost-benefits of implementing such technologies. This article is intended to give you, the ‘trusted manufacturing and warehouse advisor’ with some pointers you can use when approaching your client regarding either barcodes or RFID upgrades.
A barcode is an optical machine-readable representation of data relating to the product to which it is attached, the barcodes are scanned and interpreted for the product information. Each barcode contains a certain code which works as a tracking technology for products; and is represented in a sequence of lines or other shapes. Initially this technology was symbolized by the width and spaces between parallel lines that were one dimensional.
Within the last several years, barcode technology has evolved from the once ‘bar sequence’ into other geometrical shapes such as rectangles and hexagons. QR code is the trademark for such a matrix barcode. All barcode technology is designed to be scanned by barcode readers, but many newer technologies such as smartphones or tablets are now capable of reading the codes. Many standard desktop printers can reproduce (print) barcodes on a variety of print medium (paper, labels, tags, even plastic sheets.
- Barcodes are generally smaller and lighter than RFID tags and therefore easier to use.
- Barcodes are typically far less expensive than RFID tags; barcodes are frequently printed directly onto product packaging including plastic or paper materials; accordingly, the only cost involved is the ink; a tiny overall cost.
- Barcodes work with the same accuracy regardless of materials on which they are placed.
- Barcodes are a universal technology in that they are the norm for retail products; stores that own a barcode reader can process barcodes from anywhere in the world.
- In many instances barcode accuracy is the same or even better than RFID.
- Almost every item is already associated with a barcode, so there are no privacy issues involved with its use.
- Barcode scanners need a direct line of sight to the barcode to be able to read; as the line of sight is needed to scan, the printed bar code has to be exposed on the outside of the product.
- Barcode scanners need to be no more than 15ft, or substantially less depending on the quality of the scanner and the environment.
- Standardized barcodes do not contain any added information such as expiration date, they only contain the proprietary manufacturer and product data.
- Barcodes can be very labor intensive since they must be scanned individually, the result is low throughput.
- Barcodes have less security than RFID because they can be easily reproduced or forged.
- Barcodes are easily damaged; if a barcode is ripped or damaged there is no way to scan the product.
RFID (Radio Frequency-Identification)
Radio Frequency-Identification technology (RFID) involves a tag affixed to a product which identifies and tracks the product via radio waves. These tags are composed of a computer chip which is enclosed in a protective outer sleeve. The tags can carry 2,000 bytes of data or more (in some cases).
RFID technology has three parts: a scanning antenna, a transceiver with a decoder to interpret the data and a transponder (RFID tag) pre-set with information. The scanning antenna sends out a radio-frequency signal providing a means of communication with the RFID tag. When the RFID tag passes through the frequency field of the scanning antenna; it detects the activation signal and can transfer the information data in holds to be picked up by the scanning antenna.
- RFID tags can be read from a greater distance than barcodes.
- RFID tags don’t require a line of sight with the scanner.
- RFID tags can typically be registered at a faster rate than barcodes (as many as 100 or more tags can be read simultaneously).
- RFID tags can be read at far greater distances, in some cases up to 300 ft.
- In some cases, RFID tags can actually be imbedded into the product itself.
- RFID tags have read both and write capabilities they can carry not only standard information such as product identification, but vast amounts of proprietary information.
- RFID tags carry large data capabilities such as product maintenance, shipping histories and expiry dates; which can all be programmed to the tag.
- RFID has a high levels of security because the associated data can be encrypted, password protected or set to include a ‘kill’ feature to remove data permanently.
- Once RFID operations are configured; they can be tracked with minimal human participation (hand scanning isn’t required, usually station or area scanning is in use).
- RFID tags are rugged because they are protected by a plastic cover, this means in many cases the tags can be reused (and reprogrammed) if desired.
- RFID are computerized chips; so they are more expensive than barcodes, in some cases significantly more expensive.
- RFID readers struggle picking up information when passing through metal or liquid.
- Reader collision can occur where two signals from different scanners overlap and the tag is unable to respond to both.
- Tag collision can occur when numerous tags in the same area respond at the same time.
- RFID still has two separate chips (read only and readable/writable), typically each chip type requires a separate scanner.
- In some cases, RFID tags cannot be ‘affixed’ to the appropriate product, or maybe subject to forced removal during processes (for example polishing of a product to which an RFID tag has been adhered).
Stepping in the Right Direction and the Right Speed
There is an old saying, “a baby must crawl before it walks”. The reality is that Chuck Yeager had to exceed Mach 1 to break the sound barrier, some 5 years before Scotty Crossfield could ever fly Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound).
While many software vendors will tend to push manufacturing and warehouse clients toward RFID, not only because it may be better technology in the long run, many of your clients will need to take baby steps of upgrading their technology and that means taking them through some variance of ‘barcode’ functionality and then allowing them to grow out of that and into RFID, or the next best thing to come. As ‘trusted advisors’ you need to be ready to assist them with implementations that meet their immediate needs, provide some planning and/or at least orientation for future capabilities, and get them on the right track.
And like the crew of the Enterprise, your role is to captain them “where they have never gone before”, into ‘warehouse and/or manufacturing’ automation.