The benefits of asset tracking

Posted on 13 Jul 2009 by The Manufacturer

As manufacturers continue to move towards developing global supply chains, they increasingly need to be able to efficiently track all their resources. Effective asset tracking does not merely improve supply chain management, nor is it simply about avoiding inconvenience it also increases productivity, profitability and ultimately a manufacturer’s competitiveness. TM Talks RFID with Zebra Technologies.

What is RFID?
In order for a manufacturer to understand how RFID and bar code technologies could help them improve their business, it is first necessary to understand how the two products differ and which is more suited to an individual company’s needs. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, which is an automatic identification technology that relies on the transmission through radio waves of digital data embedded into tags. It is similar to bar code technology in that it relies on the data that has been embedded into these tags, or “smart labels”, but it uses radio waves to transmit this data instead of optical scans of labels. RFID therefore requires neither the tag nor the label to be actually in view for the information to be read.

RFID vs bar coding
As concepts, bar coding and RFID are quite similar. They are designed to offer swift and reliable asset identification and tracking capabilities which can be used across a wide range of industries. However, due to the comparatively low cost of bar code labels, the development of RFID has so far been slow to pick up. Despite developments in technology that have resulted in more cost-effective production of RFID systems, this has not led to a change in this situation. This is because bar codes and RFID technologies are not designed to be mutually exclusive, nor will one replace the other. They are both enabling technologies with different physical attributes. Bar codes utilize one-way, serialized, and periodic data. RFID utilizes two-way, parallel, and real-time data. They are thus geared to different functions and their use will be entirely dependent on the needs of the company.

Crucially, it is important for companies who are looking into developing these technologies to understand that RFID is supplementary to bar codes. Effective systems should be established using bar codes before the move to RFID takes place. RFID is an enabling technology and in order to extract all the benefits of this technology, fundamental business changes, system changes, and data changes need to take place first. With early adopters, there is evidence that this technology has, however, led to significant improvements in day-to-day business operations.

The benefits to manufacturers
RFID and barcode technology can assist manufacturers in gathering and managing asset information on both a local and a global scale. These technologies can record not only the movements of assets but also provide real-time data on the assets themselves. With wireless transmission of real-time data, the need for costly human intervention is limited.

“Having the ability to swiftly process large amounts of data at long ranges across a big group of items is obviously a massive benefit to manufacturers who are usually dealing with huge quantities of products”, says Richard Powlesland, custom applications and product manager for ard at Zebra Technologies.

According to Powlesland, the type of data that can be embedded in smart labels is almost limitless. “Life cycle information, date of production, manufacturer information, delivery information, batch information – all of these are the kind of data you can include on these tags.” The ability to be able to immediately capture this level of detail is particularly significant for larger manufacturers, who can at any one time be managing tens of thousands of items. Managing this process becomes infinitely complex when one minor mistake can delay an entire manufacturing process, thus delaying the delivery of a product and ultimately resulting in a loss of productivity. Powlesland cites the example of global car manufacturers, which waste over millions of dollars each year simply trying to locate and manage inventory within their supply chains.

It is, of course, much more effective to ensure asset availability by carefully managing information. However, this relies on a consistent approach to data management which is ultimately vulnerable to human error. Companies lose millions of pounds every year in time spent by employees physically tracking down assets.

Process automation is not, therefore, simply about reducing the amount of manual labour or intervention.

Product identification as it goes through the entire trail is very important – it means manufacturers can determine how many parts they need, resulting in less upfront costs and better cash flow management, and fewer parts sitting around taking up plant space. If this identification is done effectively on an automated scale, the potential for savings is huge.

When should I invest in these technologies?
Forward-thinking companies are using their current bar code systems to benchmark RFID technology in order to gauge impact on performance. This baseline is a crucial measure in determining the effectiveness of a new RFID system. The determination of when to use RFID technologies instead of bar codes should be driven by whether RFID can improve an existing business process.

Basically, RFID should be deployed just like any other technology—when the benefits justify the cost and effort involved in implementing it.

However, companies will need to explore the various benefits of these technologies on a case-by-case basis as RFID cannot provide a one-size-fits-all solution.

There is therefore a need to establish a robust business case for implementing this technology. Nevertheless, it is clear that automated reporting of real-time, accurate data can provide huge advantages across a wide range of industries.

Tags, readers, and smart labels
As more and more companies look towards RFID and asset tracking systems to improve their business productivity, it is evident that there is a clear need for manufacturers to truly understand the various technologies available to them before investing in a system. Powlesland suggests that manufacturers start with bar coding before moving up to RFID, thereby ensuring that the correct systems and infrastructure are in place before this investment is made.

Manufacturers need to truly understand the various technologies available to them before investing in a system, thereby ensuring that the correct systems and infrastructure are in place before this investment is made.

Tags can come in many different shapes and sizes. They are available as read-only, the data of which can be read but not changed, read/write, the data of which can be edited, or a combination of the two in which some data is permanently stored while other memory is editable. RFID therefore offers a wide variety of options that will appeal to different manufacturers based on their needs.

RFID readers, more commonly known as “interrogators”, capture data from tags which they then transmit to a computer to be processed. Like tags, the readers vary in shape and size; they can be fixed in stationary positions or totally portable. The style of reader required is therefore entirely dependent on the individual needs of the manufacturer.

Companies who are interested in improving their supply chain management may wish to seek an option that combines the best of both worlds. “Our printers are not limited to just bar codes or just just RFID; we offer dual printers that enable you to print everything from simple bar code labels to full RFID tags”, says Powlesland.