Installation Inventory: Achieving pinpoint accuracy in the DC

by Inside Logistics Online Staff
RFID readers are positioned to pick up locations throughout the zones.

In 2012 Randa had a problem. The company is a global manufacturer distributor and marketer of men’s accessories, from belts to backpacks and luggage to leather goods, with operations in 11 countries and a portfolio of 50-plus brands. With such a broad range of products, their distribution operations were struggling with the need to meet retailers’ requirements for item-level tagging.

They asked RFID supplier MSM Solutions for help. The result was the application of a specially designed small RFID tag, and MSM software throughout Randa’s global operations to print, encode and verify the millions of tags needed for compliance.

With the success of this initiative, when Randa again began to grapple with inventory control issues at its 525,000-square-foot DC in Reno, Nevada, in 2016 the company turned to MSM.

“The challenges Randa faced are the same problems that many businesses face; accurately identifying where stuff is and how much they have,” said Brett Wilkerson, RFID business development with MSM Solutions.

Find our stuff!

The project’s mandate was to identify, track, count, and manage pallet-level shipments headed to retail stores throughout the United States. With tens of millions of units of product moving through this facility annually, storage and prep space is limited.

And although Randa’s DC and processes were well organized, they lacked the real time visibility into quantities and locations that they needed to cope with high-volume seasonal peaks. Forklift drivers moving product to outbound lanes were often forced to use any available spot to drop their loads, and loads for the same order often became separated from each other as a result. Lots of time was being wasted as loaders looked for pallets.

RFID for all

Unique customer RFID labels are applied to every pallet.

The solution introduced was to install an RF system that would allow for real-time knowledge of each pallet’s location. Specifically, each pallet would receive a unique RF identifier and forklift drivers were equipped with the ability to find specific locations in pre-defined zones.

Loading staff were given mobile devices with RF capabilities that could find a pallet location to within a couple feet. The system was also given the ability to place and locate overflow items in outlying staging areas.

The project unfolded in stages, with the RFID labeling process established first. A custom application generates pallet labels with Customer Name, Destination Location, PO#, Date of order and the number of pallet tags required. Once the variable data is entered the software assigns a unique ID, associates the variable data and then prints and encodes the pallet labels.

Once that was done the DC was divided into eight zones. Each zone comprised 10 shipping lanes with each lane holding up to 10 double-stacked pallets. MSM Solutions divided the DC’s main shipping and staging areas into 50 x 50-foot zones, which were defined by the support beams in the facility. The goal was to reliably read any pallet entering at one of the 10 lanes within a zone.

After some testing, MSM settled on Zebra FX7500 readers evenly distributed in the staging lanes with four connected antennas. The antennas were mounted in pairs to the support beams, spread 50 feet apart and facing inward towards the respective lanes to capture the pallets’ locations.

Forklift drivers were then equipped with tablets that allow them to assign a pallet to a specific lane and bay within a zone. Using MSM’s PortalTrack software on the mobile device, a driver can see their current zone location and can tap to confirm the zone which then presents a visual image of the shipping lanes. The driver can then just tap the lane and bay where they are placing the pallet. This provides additional detail that lets Randa know the zone in which a pallet was placed as well as the exact location within a zone that might contain up to 200 pallets.

Pallet tracking in the here and now

The software came with reporting capability that gives Randa real-time visibility to the present location of any pallet in the fulfillment centre. As well, users can login to any web-enabled device and see all available pallets for shipping by customer PO and retailer, as well as being able to search and sort by other variable data.

The final stage of the project was to add RF tracking in the non-zoned outlying areas, which MSM accomplished by mounting an overhead chandelier-type reader box. The overhead readers capture product coming from all directions and gives Randa the real time visibility and location feature needed for tracking pallets which are dropped anywhere outside of the main staging area during peak season.

MSM Solutions also provided a mapping function that is an exact replica of the 525,000-square-foot DC that will pinpoint any pallet within a zone or show all available pallets within a selected zone. The mapping feature was an easy method for the seasonal employees to locate pallets with little or no training.

With the new RF system in place Randa has eliminated hours of searching for products, ensured that shipping dates were on target, eliminated chargebacks for late or incomplete shipments from retailers, and carrier fines for having to reschedule trucks or making drivers wait. Locating products is done reliably and accurately using the push of a button from any device anywhere.

“The real-time visibility and reporting that PortalTrack delivered has allowed us to make better and more timely decisions. Knowing exact counts and the exact locations of items in a facility this size has eliminated wasted labour costs searching for items, prevented shipment delays and helped us avoid chargebacks,” said Randy Kennedy, chief logistics officer at Randa Logistics.

MSM has been able to replicate this project for other customers.