RFID in Case Packing for Scalable Process Improvement

By Jennifer Ward, Offering Manager, Mobility Solutions at Peak-Ryzex, Inc.

Process automation. Efficiency. Accuracy. Traceability. Visibility. Logistics optimization. Compliance mandates.

RFID has been a topic of discussion for over 20 years, and as much as the business drivers listed here may sound different, they all result in cost reduction and increased profitability. As RFID continues to mature and costs to implement continue to decrease, we are turning the corner from the days when RFID was a science project toward valid use cases for RFID to expand, along with the business drivers that support the investment.

It is now well established that RFID can improve receiving and shipping accuracies. But what about before it gets to the walls of the warehouse? Absolutely.

But First, What is RFID?

RFID stands for “Radio Frequency Identification” and is a form of wireless communication comprised of three main components: the application host, passive or active RFID tags, and the reader/writer system. There are three main types of RFID frequencies used: low frequency (30KHz to 500KHz), which typically has a range of less than three feet; high frequency (3MHz to 30MHz), which has a typical range of less than six feet; and ultra high frequency (300MHz to 960MHz), which has a potential range of more than 25 feet. Utilizing electromagnetic waves at the pre-determined radio frequencies, the reader/writer exchanges and retrieves information stored by tags attached to objects intended to be tracked. The reader is a network-connected device that can be mobile or fixed.

Indeed, RFID systems can be complex and vary significantly from application to application or by product(s) being traced.  The benefits, however, often outweigh the costs and complexity.

Picking and Case Packing are Challenging… and Costly

In case packing, unnecessary time and steps reduce profitability. On average, order pickers spend about 60 percent of their time moving product. Therefore, reducing these steps and adding automation increases productivity and profitability.

RFID technology has been widely used by manufacturing, logistics providers and supply chain managers – typically for status identification, location tracking and process detection. RFID is most commonly used in item- and parent-level track-and-trace technology, allowing it to be a suitable fit when associating a picked item to a case. This technology enables warehouses to track goods throughout the picking process, including checking items in and out automatically, reducing steps and time, and increasing accuracy.

So, what makes this so complex? Case packing in itself has several different iterations, including at the product manufacturer level or distribution level, and what will be in the cases. Even within a seemingly like product group, there may be significant variation on the requirements. Liquid dishwashing detergent, for example, will potentially have a different requirement than the powder counterpart. The size and shape of the case or carton, the tag orientation, or the grouping of multiple cases onto a pallet may impact requirements. All of these may affect how a tag is read and the processes used, but none eliminate RFID from being a suitable technology.

Benefits of RFID in Case and Carton Packing

RFID in case packing enables scalable process improvement. RFID benefits both the shipper and the receiver, often mutually. Compared to barcode labels, RFID tags can be read at further distances and provide more information, such as the item weight, manufacturer date or location, all very important in today’s world of product recalls. The shipper benefits by reducing steps of an employee in a warehouse, as the order can be sent to a picker’s RFID device – enabling the employee to pick the item from the shelf without taking additional steps back to a workstation.  Once the receiver has their shipment, they can easily determine the contents without opening any of the boxes, crates or containers. The items can quickly be placed into stock with the wave of an RFID reader.

RFID tags are often more protected from environmental damage that may scratch or spoil barcodes, rendering them virtually useless. In addition, for items being placed in cases, they can be read within the package, as they do not require a direct line-of-sight like barcodes do. They can also be updated or even reused. For sensitive items requiring security, such as medication, RFID is a safer option, as they can be encrypted and thus protected. Unlike barcodes that can be relatively easily copied, RFID is much more challenging to replicate. This is beneficial to the shipper, as it virtually eliminates costly returns or compliance fines, and is beneficial to the receiver as their process remains smooth and swift.

One of the most common errors in picking and packing cases is the counting of small items. Using RFID ensures the correct quantity is picked without having the time-consuming practice of multiple counts. Another common error is mis-picking a similar item to the intended item when using slotted inventory. Slotting is the process of keeping similar types of inventory together, which often allows for increased throughput by reducing picker steps and search time. This process is doubly effective when using mobile RFID technology to confirm the accurate pick.

If companies elect to not proceed with a RFID solution during the picking and case packing process but still need to ensure compliance, they can still elect to implement RFID to verify contents of a package after it has been picked. Using the RFID to “look” inside cases, cartons or pallets verifies the accuracy of the pick, and allows inaccurate packages to be caught and routed prior to shipment of the incorrect pick. This is a way to continue with existing processes but avoid costly returns or compliance fines.

It is highly recommended companies work with trusted partners, and it is imperative to understand the objective, technical limitations, requirements, scalability, integration and potential standards of the potential RFID deployment. When items are picked and packed into cases and cartons quickly and accurately, the ROI potential – and thus increased profitability – is significant.

About the Author

Jennifer Ward is the offering manager for mobility solutions at Peak-Ryzex, responsible for supporting all mobility initiatives, including RFID. She acts as the primary contact for all partners with mobility products or software solutions, and driving change in-premise and in the field.