Friction, as we learned in elementary school science, slows things down. Friction in brick-and-mortar retail settings – making the in-store customer wait – is one of the biggest pain points in retail operations. Slow checkouts are a friction pain point that reduces sales, tarnishes brand image, and pushes customers toward online shopping.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is starting to move retail toward the goal of frictionless checkout. RFID is the undeniable champion of physical asset management – fast, accurate, reliable, cost-effective, and flexible. Warehousing and logistics have relied on RFID technology for decades. But applying it to the challenge of the “last mile” has proved to be elusive until recently.
The last mile – delivering products to the end user – is the most expensive and complex segment of the supply chain. Inventory re-supply, shelf re-stocking, and buyer check-out are labor-intensive. The first breakthrough in a fully automated last mile was Amazon’s 2018 trial launch of its Go checkout-free retail program. Go created a frictionless shopping experience, with shoppers choosing their merchandise and walking out of the store without any active interaction with payment technology or staff.
RFID is integral to the success of true frictionless checkout. Cameras identify objects as they are removed from shelves. RFID readers detect RFID-chip credit cards to ensure merchants are paid for whatever leaves the store. Working together, the cameras and RFID manage a store’s inventory with a real-time speed and efficiency that cannot be matched by less automated means. Amazon Go and similar frictionless checkout technologies are expected to expand from $218 million to $45 billion by 2023.
Access to real-time data is what makes RFID such a valuable asset to supply chain operations. Linked to ERP (enterprise resource planning), SCM (supply chain management), and just-walk-out software, RFID provides visibility throughout the manufacturing supply chain, from factory to warehouse to consumer.
RFID helps information and operations work together. The information collected from RFID sources along the chain improves the flexibility and responsiveness of the entire chain. Suppliers can respond to trends more easily, and identify potential supply-and-demand incongruities before they become a problem.
No matter where your business operates in the supply chain – manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, retail – RFID provides crucial end to end management information. Be agile, be proactive, and be confident that RFID-supplied data lets you make better informed decisions.
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Nothing is more disappointing than opening the ice cream carton in your freezer, and discovering that someone else in your household has left you only half a teaspoon of partially-melted soupiness in the bottom of the carton. Maybe Elsa in “Frozen” could let it go, but you can’t. The only cold things in your kitchen are your thoughts regarding the person who deprived you of the sweet joy of ice cream.
Now, thanks to a combination of RFID and robotics, you will soon have a constant supply of ice cream at your command. Technology company Robomart is deploying mobile ice cream shops – refrigerated vans paired with RFID and a smart phone app. Ice cream cravers use the app to hail the nearest mobile store, which then comes rolling up to the shopper’s door, filled with frozen treats.
Each ice cream carton has an RFID tag affixed to it. After a buyer makes their selections, the van’s doors close and an RFID reader automatically inventories the remaining containers. The buyer is billed for the products that were removed, and restocking locations are alerted that the supply of rocky road caramel swirl is running low. Purchasing statistics provide data to predictive inventory systems, to make sure a neighborhood’s favorite flavors are well-stocked.
This is just one of the innovative ways RFID has been changing the supply chain. From manufacturers all the way to consumers, RFID improves productivity and profits.
Reducing waste – RFID keeps a close eye on manufacturing inventory to ensure a constant materials supply. No time is wasted with stock-outs, and no perishable products are held beyond their use-by dates.
Reducing shrinkage – RFID tracks individual items from factory to warehouse, to distribution, to retail, to consumer. Losses in any part of the chain are traceable.
Reducing customer disappointment – RFID delivers timely updates to ensure that supply meets demand, at any point in the supply chain. And if there’s a supply disruption, you know about it before it becomes a crisis.
With the current stresses on the supply chain, RFID keeps your business ahead of any bad news. You have an opportunity to proactively update your customers with any upcoming supply problems. They can adjust their operations before their productivity is affected, and their gratitude becomes your next big sale.
Imagine if the person who ate your ice cream had updated you on the personal ice cream inventory prior to the supply crisis. You might have been grateful for the heads-up, and instead of feeling cold-hearted, you would have opened that mobile ice cream store app and ordered for both of you. Customer relations and family relations are everything, and RFID is here to help.
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Manufacturing information systems (MISys), like all business information systems, deliver a wealth of data. Increasingly, RFID provides a significant amount of that data by interfacing with MISys processes.
It is said that information is power. “Information is power only if you can take action with it,” responds futurist Daniel Burrus. RFID enhances MISys data in these five essential ways, to make sense of the mass of information, and make the data actionable.
- Timeliness – data must be delivered quickly enough to make a decision on, and act on. RFID delivers data in real time.
- Presentation – data must be presented understandably, in a way that helps decision-making. RFID data is easy to read, and easy to export to other text-based or numerical-based reporting apps.
- Accuracy – inaccurate data isn’t just useless for decision-making, it’s downright dangerous. RFID data is more accurate than any other form of inventory tracking data.
- Context – data needs context in order to have meaning. RFID data gives context with what-where-identity-quantity information.
- Expectation – expected data confirms prior decisions; unexpected data short-circuits errors today and tomorrow. RFID data gives decision-makers feedback on a course of action, whether it reinforces an action or exposes a need for change.
RFID contributes actionable data in every stage of manufacturing, from materials procurement through product delivery:
- Provenance – track the source and whereabouts of components and raw materials.
- Production – measure quantities, build projections, forecast delays, and discover efficiencies.
- Testing – pull substandard product using unique RFID identifiers, before shipping defective items.
- Security – prevent unauthorized access and shrinkage.
RFID transforms manufacturing. It supports existing MISys data. It provides its own new, additional data. It makes information truly valuable. Can your manufacturing operations benefit from RFID? Talk to an RFID consultant to find out how.
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We’ve all been told about the benefits of RFID – accurate data, collected and delivered at electronic speed, for real-time decision-making. But does it really make a difference in our day-to-day work lives?
Let’s take a look at two imaginary individuals leading parallel lives. RFID Ray and Non-RFID Ned are operations managers at companies that manufacture, let’s say, turbo-charged self-navigating riding mowers.
- They both get up at 6:30 a.m. and get ready for work. Ray can’t find his keys, but an RFID app on his cell phone quickly locates them. He leaves home in time to miss the worst of the morning traffic.
- Ned, too, has misplaced his keys. He loses 10 minutes looking for them, then he loses another 15 minutes in heavy traffic.
- Ray arrives in the office a few minutes early. He enjoys a cup of coffee and catches up with a colleague, then he opens the RFID-controlled materials inventory on his computer. He sees that the supply of a critical part (we’ll call it a widget) is dangerously low; bad weather has delayed a supplier’s delivery. Ray places a call to another supplier, whose RFID inventory system says he has a 5-day supply in stock. Ray says, “I’ll take them all.”
- When Ned finally arrives at the office 25 minutes late, there’s no time for coffee and team-building chitchat. Like Ray, Ned checks his materials inventory report. It’s a paper document showing a manual count of parts. It took two precious work days to do the inventory nearly a month ago. The report shows that he has plenty of widgets to continue operations for another week. Suddenly the line supervisor rushes in to Ned’s office. “Boss, we’re nearly out of widgets, and the bad weather had delayed the shipment we expected. We’ll have to shut the line down tomorrow if we don’t get more.” Ned gets on the phone to the other nearby supplier, who gives Ned the bad news that Ray bought the last widgets an hour ago.
- Back at Ray’s office, the accountant asks Ray if he has the hard copy of a customer’s purchasing contract. It’s not on Ray’s desk. He checks the RFID document-tracking system, and it shows the contract is on the CFO’s desk. The accountant heads to the CFO’s office and locates the missing document.
- Ned, meanwhile, cannot find the purchasing document the accountant needs. He has no idea where it has gone or who took it off his desk. He stops trying to find a widget supplier and starts looking for the document. After 20 minutes, he locates it in the CFO’s office, then he gets back to widget-hunting.
- When Ray comes back from lunch, he gets a call from a parts manufacturer. The manufacturer’s RFID tracking system shows that a crate of defective jackson rods was sent to Ray. Ray checks his own RFID system and sees that some of the defective parts have just entered the assembly line. He contacts the line supervisor to tell him where the defective parts are on the line; the supervisor removes them. Ray then sends a message to his warehouse: Query the RFID system for the location of the crate of defective parts, and prepare it for return to the manufacturer. Total time required – 5 minutes.
- Ned has no time for lunch. He’s still searching for widgets. Late in the day, his QC manager tells him that some of the finished riding mowers failed QC due to defective jackson rods. Ned shuts down the line while the crew pulls the defective parts. The warehouse manager walks up and down the shelving aisles looking for the crate of defective parts. “I know it was here somewhere,” he says. Ned complains bitterly to the jackson rod manufacturer. Total time required – 4 hours.
- Ray leaves work right on time, his RFID badge recording his exit from the building. He works out at the gym, has a quick bite, and goes to his daughter’s school play. She’s the star of his life.
- Ned gives up the search for widgets and reluctantly lets his boss know the line won’t be operating tomorrow. Ned’s crew is still pulling the defective jackson rods off the line. The crew is being paid overtime, so they don’t mind too much, except the ones whose children are in the school play. Ned, exhausted, tries to sign out on the security log book. His pen runs out of ink. When he gets to his car, he can’t find his keys.
- Just about the same time, Ray is applauding his daughter with a standing ovation.
The story is hypothetical, but the RFID technology is quite real: There is an RFID application for almost every aspect of your work life, and many for your personal life. Whether it’s the time needed to make a well-informed` decision, time to locate something essential, or time to focus on family and self, the most valuable thing RFID gives you is time.
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Shortages and hoarding were two of the many unwelcome side effects of the pandemic. Remember the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020? A similar effect was felt in many business sectors. Manufacturers experienced shortages of parts or materials. Hospitals ran short of PPE and other supplies. Out-of-stocks cost retailers billions in a year.
Businesses responded to shortages by overstocking inventory. But overstocking is costly. Buying excess inventory is expensive; storing the excess adds additional costs. And if demand suddenly drops, your business is left holding the bag.
The just in time (JIT) production and distribution chain has been the enterprise holy grail for more than 3 decades. It only works if every segment of the supply chain communicates with every other segment in a timely manner. Any lapse or slow-down of communication means potential or actual shortages, with a ripple effect that is felt all up and down the line. Time is indeed of the essence.
And timely communication is where RFID shines. Not only does it track your inventory coming in the door, it tracks it as it leaves. And it communicates that information to your ERP system, in real time. At any given moment, managers can know exactly what they have on hand, and they can re-order at the right time to avoid a shortage, or an excess.
Moreover, this close monitoring of inventory doesn’t add to labor costs. Door-mounted RFID readers collect information automatically as inventory moves in and out. There’s no need to wait for a manual check-out, or even slow down for a bar code reader. RFID wins the inventory race every time, as this video shows.
Fast, accurate tracking of inventory is the key to keeping the supply chain moving smoothly and profitably. The data collected from RFID lets businesses confidently predict supply and demand throughout the supply chain. RFID is your ally in the battle for profitability.
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RFID is an outstanding asset management tool. It tracks inventories, it tracks supplies, it tracks components during manufacturing, it tracks finished products all the way to the consumer’s hands. And it does all this tracking speedily, with complete accuracy.
But RFID isn’t just about the movement and storage of physical objects. It can help keep workers safe in dangerous situations.
Some workers’ jobs are inherently unsafe just by the nature of the work – first responders, for example. Other work settings may be safe ordinarily, but can experience life-threatening accidents or natural disasters. RFID offers a way to improve safety on the job or in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
ROUTING AND POSITIONING
The pandemic taught managers the importance of maintaining workers’ social distance as well as contact tracing. A tool kit of RFID wearables and badges monitors staff’s movements, making contract tracing simple. Fertilizer manufacturer Nutrien, for instance, uses RFID wearables to maintain social distance during crew changeovers, as workers pass in and out of gates.
Additionally, RFID wearables let managers collect data on workers’ on-the-job movement patterns. Analyzing this data reveals more productive task positions and operational routes. Wasted trips are reduced, and unsafe routes are eliminated.
In emergency situations, it’s vital to know where all your employees are. RFID delivers this information in real time. In a multiple-alarm fire, fire chiefs track their firefighters’ whereabouts via RFID wearables, and direct assistance where it’s needed. In the oil and gas industry, RFID badges let managers account for all their employees in the event of a volatile chemical accident.
Employee health and safety pays off in so many ways. You retain skilled, productive personnel. Your liability is reduced. Your insurance rates don’t suffer.
A safe workplace is good for your brand. And it’s good for you, personally. Alternative Energy Development Group’s Chris Fraga said, “The most important asset of our business is our team and their families, the very essence of life.” Don’t leave this vital asset out of your RFID asset management system. An investment in RFID technology is an investment in a safe workplace, and in your organization’s future.
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