Magazine Article | December 1, 2005

Optimize Your RFID Project With RFID Label Applicators

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Implement RFID (radio frequency identification) label applicators in your operations and guarantee label placement while reducing labor costs.

Integrated Solutions, December 2005

In Integrated Solutions' Annual Resource Guide To RFID And Supply Chain Management inserted in the August 2005 issue, we featured a story called RFID Compliance: Trial And Error, which was about Del Monte Foods' RFID project and the challenges the manufacturer was facing. To write the story, I visited Del Monte's Pittsburgh plant to see its RFID trial lab, and I observed first-hand the difficulty of properly placing the RFID tags on cases of tuna. The metal and liquid contents of the cans affected the tags' readability, so each label needed to be placed in a strategic position on each case. Del Monte's warehouse workers were manually applying these tags, but the company could have greatly benefited from RFID label applicators.

The placement of an RFID tag usually means the difference between a readable and nonreadable tag. And if that nonreadable tag isn't caught before shipping it to your trading partners, you could face fines for noncompliance. "Humans can't always put an RFID tag in the right spot, especially when trying to maintain certain speeds or processing different-sized cases throughout the day," says Andrew Moore, senior product marketing manager for Printronix. "RFID label applicators can narrow down tag placement to 1/16 of an inch."

RFID label applicators fall into a number of different categories, including standard labeling machines, which use pre-encoded and preprinted tags, and machines that begin with blank RFID-inlaid-tags, then print, encode, verify the encoding, and apply the tags. When it comes to applying tags in large volumes, verifying the encoding before the label is applied is ideal. "If a company deploys an RFID label application system that relies on verification after the label is applied, diverting cases with nonreadable RFID tags to a separate area of the DC (distribution center) will impose a significant cost," says John Powell, vice president of systems integration and services for Paxar Corp. "The nonreadable cases will need to be dealt with manually, which means extra labor costs and a slowdown of the entire process as new tags are printed and applied and the cases are routed back to the correct pallet line."

Once you've decided to implement a printer/applicator, your next decision is where to implement the applicators: in DCs, or in production lines. That decision will be based largely around tag volumes and how you turn product around in your DCs.

Most companies that are required to ship RFID-tagged products apply the RFID tags in their DCs. In these situations, pallets designated to be shipped to an RFID-enabled customer will be pulled out of the normal flow of goods and into a separate area of the DC where an RFID station is set up. This area usually consists of a conveyer belt, a couple of pallet jacks, and RFID printers/encoders and readers. In most cases, the pallet tag bar code will be scanned, which queries the DC's WMS (warehouse management system) or similar software and brings up the RFID print run for that pallet. The data for the run is sent to the RFID printer/encoder, which prints the labels. The pallet is broken down at one end of the conveyer belt, with DC workers applying the RFID labels and placing cases on the belt to run under an RFID reader to verify the tag. Workers at the other end of the DC rebuild the pallet with the now-RFID-tagged cases and drive the pallet to the dock doors for shipping.

"Manual slap and ship is a good way for companies to get started using RFID, but as volumes increase to hundreds of thousands of cases, it quickly becomes more efficient to use an automated RFID label applicator," says Michael Putnam, product marketing manager for MARKEM Corp. As mentioned earlier, the manual process can cause errors in tag placement, which can result in noncompliance chargebacks. Companies are also spending a significant amount of labor to apply the tags and rebuild the pallet -- usually three to four workers would be part of the process.

With RFID label applicators, companies can maintain their separate RFID-application areas in the DCs, but can streamline the process and save on labor. Two employees would be sufficient to process a pallet, and more pallets can be processed with the increased speed of application the machines can maintain.

Applying RFID tags in a slap-and-ship method, even if the application is automated, can only last so long before the tag volume becomes too high. At that point, called the tipping point, moving RFID label application into the production line makes the most business sense. There is no set rule as to what that tipping point is, however. But a general rule of thumb, according to Putnam, is when companies are shipping 30% of their products with RFID tags. "Our customers cite ranges from 30% to 70%, but 30% is probably the most accurate," he explains. "At that point, a company is using tags in such high volume that tag costs will drop dramatically."

Companies also could make the case for applying RFID tags in production if their trading partners depend on cross-docking in the DCs (e.g. breaking down and repalletizing shipments to fit specific orders for stores). In this situation, there may not be time to take pallets out of the distribution process to apply RFID tags. "Even automated slap and ship might not be sufficient in cross-docking situations," says Moore. "We have a customer that ships only 25 RFID-tagged cases at a time, but the cross-docking window of its partner is so narrow they've had to move the tagging to the production line."

When implementing RFID printers/ encoders/applicators into your production lines, you'll need to consider more elements than if it were a designated area of the DC. Some factors to keep in mind include:

  • There is a great deal of moving metal in production. You'll need to find an area with the least amount of radio frequency interference.
  • Production speed will be affected by the added step of RFID tagging. You might need to integrate two to three RFID applicators per production line to maintain production speeds.
  • Remember that RFID applicators need to be accessible for maintenance, printer ribbon changes, bad tag removal, etc.

Additionally, whether you're implementing RFID applicators in the DC or in production lines, you'll want to ensure the printer is compatible with your existing systems. "Companies need to understand the IT requirements going in and make sure all necessary printer drivers and languages are compatible with their legacy systems," says Moore. "Ask applicator vendors if their hardware is compatible with your WMS, and if it is working in an environment today."