Among the many industrial applications of wireless technology, RFID (radio frequency identification) material tracking systems have consumed a disproportionate amount of ink in both the trade and consumer press. The prospect of Wal-Mart, the U.S. DoD, and others creating a new, multibillion dollar industry has certainly been tantalizing. But as an increasing number of articles suggest, the nirvana of a totally RFID-connected world is still a long way away and may never arrive.
In the meantime, there are actually several RFID-based supply chain technologies that have quietly generated a significant return on investment for the enterprises deploying them. One of these applications is the control, tracking, and management of industrial vehicles — the forklifts, tow tractors, and other pieces of equipment that pump material through the arteries of the supply chain. Numerous issues are associated with industrial vehicles, including:
- The costs and productivity issues associated with the labor required to operate such vehicles
- The costs to acquire, maintain, and operate a fleet of such vehicles
- The accidents, injuries, and damages that are all too frequently associated with such vehicles
- The substantial government safety concerns with such vehicles, as regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
RFID-based industrial vehicle management systems generally consist of intelligent wireless devices installed on the vehicles, wireless communication nodes for connecting the vehicle-mounted devices to a computer network, and software for various levels of management to control and utilize the system from anywhere on the network. The goal of such systems is to establish total visibility of — and accountability for — both the vehicles and the people who operate them.
VEHICLE UTILIZATION AND OPERATOR PRODUCTIVITY
First and foremost, wireless industrial vehicle management systems provide a broad range of statistical data to optimize fleet utilization, reduce the number of vehicles and operators needed to perform required work, and improve operator productivity. A system's vehicle-mounted devices will incorporate sensors to detect and record virtually any aspect of a vehicle's activity, including log-in time, motion/idle state, loaded/unloaded status, weight of load, battery condition, and more.
Advanced wireless systems also provide real-time location tracking, historical 'breadcrumb trail' playback of travel paths, real-time two-way text dispatching to direct resources to hot spots of peak activity, automated 'kanban' task assignments, and other workforce optimization functions.
In addition to revealing opportunities to improve productivity and providing controls to effectively sustain productivity increases, wireless industrial vehicle management systems also reduce capital and operating costs by optimizing the quantity of vehicles and operators required to perform work. Unique sets of data, such as simultaneous vehicle utilization and the ratio of travel-with-load to 'deadhead' (unloaded) travel, provide management with 20/20 vision of resource activity.
SAFETY AND SECURITY ISSUES
Another fundamental purpose of wireless industrial vehicle management systems is to improve workplace safety and security by providing vehicle access control, electronic safety inspection checklists, and the ability to remotely lock out unsafe equipment.
OSHA requires that an employer ensure that only trained employees have access to industrial vehicles. The vehicle-mounted devices in wireless vehicle management systems incorporate a link to the vehicle's ignition system and store a database of operator authentication data, so that only trained and authorized operators can start and operate a vehicle. Unauthorized personnel cannot.
Wireless industrial vehicle management systems also ensure that vehicle safety checks, mandated by OSHA, are performed and documented. Wireless systems eliminate the need for paper-based checklist systems, which are inefficient and error-prone. When an authorized operator logs onto a vehicle, the vehicle-mounted device automatically prompts the operator to complete an electronic checklist. If the operator does not complete the checklist in a timely manner, the system can generate both on-vehicle and system-wide alerts to management, as well as automatically shut down the vehicle.
Wireless industrial vehicle management systems also upload all checklist data automatically and wirelessly in real time, enabling maintenance and safety management to: (1) have an instant, auditable electronic record of all checklists; (2) sort checklist responses by severity to make informed decisions on maintenance scheduling; and (3) view critical problems in real time on a graphical software view of the facility.
Gregory Smith is VP of I.D. Systems, Inc. (www.id-systems.com), a provider of RFID-based wireless solutions for industrial asset management. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.