Don’t dismiss barcodes but watch for RFID

5 mins read

If you think barcoding is old tech and RFID the way to go, consider this: the former is proven yet hugely underused; the latter is largely in the future. Andrew Ward takes advice from two users of each technology

Barcodes are barcodes; everyone uses them; and they're old technology. Right? Wrong. There's a spread of technologies, ranging widely in sophistication and application potential that's still waiting to be exploited today. Edinburgh Woollen Mills (EWM)?and RS Components are examples of companies still newly embarking on substantial barcode implementations and demonstrating good business benefits stemming from excellent speed, automation, efficiency and accuracy improvements. Both chose barcoding because it works and absolutely still has something to offer that delivers tangible ROI (return on investment). More on these two later, but first it's also worth noting that, astonishingly, only 28% of manufacturers are currently using barcodes anything like extensively, while just 4% are comprehensive users. That's according to a recent Benchmark Research survey commissioned by Microsoft. And it's despite the relatively low cost, simplicity and success of barcode systems. Meanwhile, RFID (radio frequency identification) is showing excellent potential and, it has to be said, considerable advantage over barcoding with still wider ranging applications – but it's not all rosy yet. Sony and Philips, for example, are running pilot and production projects showing how much more is possible with RFID, even in difficult circumstances, and especially when it comes to identifying individual items within a tote, package or pallet – fast and automatically. And both are going beyond the well-understood RFID benefits of reading at a greater distance, without line of sight, and offering good robustness against dirt and wear. Returning to EWM though, its 100,000 sqft distribution centre, which provides 280 outlets throughout the UK with everything from clothing to toys, handles some 28 million items a year. Recently, the barcode system was upgraded with new equipment and scanners from BanTec. Far from seeing this as old tech, Chris Foster, supply chain director at EWM, says: "We didn't see that there would be any significant benefit in RFID." EWM has taken great pains with its supply chain to make the distribution process as streamlined as possible. "Packs are labelled by our suppliers, so all we have to do is scan them on receipt," says Foster. "We currently have 99.8% accuracy in terms of stock placement." And with the new handheld scanners, earlier problems of battery life, reading distance and robustness have been eliminated. Interestingly, there's now also no need to scan individual items within a pack, even though this isn't an RFID implementation. "Our suppliers provide us with ratio packs – so when we pick the garments for a store, instead of having to pick six or nine individual items, we just take one ratio pack, containing one medium, two large, and so on – as supplied to us," explains Foster. "This saves time on picking, and means we just need to scan the outer label." So simple, isn't it. RS' approach with its distribution and warehouse tracking and management is similar – but in this case, earlier RFID tagging at its huge Nuneaton warehouse has been stripped out and replaced by barcoding. That, says the company, does all it requires to track plastic totes around its warehouses automatically. And that's at the UK's largest distributor of electronic, electrical, health and safety, mechanical and IT products, serving over 250,000 customers from a warehouse with 9km of automated conveyor, 700,000 storage locations and 132,000 product lines. Using scanners that read barcodes attached to the totes, the conveyor takes the goods to their intended location, while a similar system operates to retrieve goods from storage to make up orders. "When a barcode passes a scanner the system is informed within a split second, and can then route the tote appropriately," says Chris Hewardine, system support manager at the Nuneaton warehouse. Keep on tracking Making that work faultlessly meant dealing with practical and technical issues: for example, each plastic tote sports four labels so there are no problems with orientation on the conveyor. Also, the label is recessed by about 1mm to avoid wear. "In any case, the label is large enough to be still readable even if there is a wear streak," insists Hewardine. And if you're worrying about wear, he says don't: some of the labels running around his facility are now 20 years old, whereas specification sheets for RFID ICs only quote a data retention time of 10 years – although that will be exceeded. With success under its belt, the barcode system at Nuneaton has just been extended to RS' second distribution centre at Corby, replacing an RFID system that just couldn't read tags quickly enough to avoid routing difficulties. Worth taking notice of that. However, by contrast, a successful RFID project at Philips Semiconductors demonstrates just what can be achieved with the latest auto ID technology, provided you're persistent. This project tags and traces IC wafer cases and boxes of components flowing between its manufacturing facility in Kaoshiung, Taiwan and its Asia Pacific distribution centre in Hong Kong – and that's millions of boxes a year. The implementation illustrates two of the big benefits of RFID. First, it's practical to read the tags at many different places within the Hong Kong warehouse. But second, as Mathieu Clerkx, CIO and senior vice president, supply chain management at Philips Semiconductors, says: "The biggest benefit over barcode readers is that you can scan the individual items within a box. It is important for us to verify the quantities of reels of ICs within the boxes – we need to know what's there and how many boxes are on the pallet." Not only does that mean dramatically reducing the amount of effort throughout receiving, warehouse and shipping activities, but there are no mistakes. Says Clerkx: "On goods inwards, it's very important to be able to easily reconcile the EDI messages coming from the Kaoshiung facility with the physical goods. If there is a different product in a box or the wrong box we can immediately take corrective action." It sounds easy, and indeed, Philips boasts 100% readability, using its own I.Code smart label ICs for the tags. But it wasn't. "We have had a number of technical obstacles," explains Clerkx. "The goods are packed in aluminium so a lot of effort went into both designing the packs and working out how to load the pallet so you have 100% readability. And that's essential – if you can't read under all circumstances then people are going to doubt the technology and the results." So good results, but some caveats. Meanwhile, Sony Logistics Europe (SLE) – which serves dealers in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, also stocking most of Sony's products for its Consumer Electronics, Entertainment, Professional Products and IT divisions – is still in the pilot stage with its RFID implementation. Like Philips, Sony has had technical problems to overcome, in its case with the metal and fluid in LCD screens reducing the readability of tags. "We experimented with putting tags at different positions on and in the packing and the product, and with the antennae in different positions and configurations. These parameters seemed to have a major effect on readability, and ultimately we achieved 100%," says Wolfgang Schoenfeld, who is in charge of the RFID pilot. But, interestingly, SLE hasn't yet been able to move further. "We don't see the technology ready at all," says Schoenfeld. While there is no problem with the performance of its AR400 RFID scanners from Symbol Technologies, there are other issues. For logistics, for example, the major benefit comes from bulk RFID reading, but the first generation EPC protocols are too heavy and slow in terms of readability, and that the company needs to wait for second generation tags. Schoenfeld is confident it will all come together. "Our goal is to understand what the technology can do and what it can't do," he says. "Armed with this information we see the potential for applications." For those that can't afford that investment, best to keep at least an informed watching brief – and don't forget the power of barcodes.