Manufacturing News

Tracking forklifts of the future

Advances in RFID technology is providing more visibility in the warehouse, with information on product production, forklift movements and inventory control now instantly available. Katherine Crichton reports.

ELIMINATING downtime and reducing costs is at the core of any manufacturing philosophy, and now an innovative way of marrying a new technology with one of the oldest workhorses in the factory, is providing cost effective solution to asset and product management.

Forklift companies and technology solution providers have worked together to address the accuracy and efficiency requirements of a successful warehousing operation, and as a result, RFID technology can now be directly integrated with forklifts making transport and management of inventory easier and more effective.

Forklifts are now available which are fully operational and pre-configured with intelligent data management programming, giving manufacturers the ability to automatically track inventory with little or no forklift operator intervention, as well as keep track of the vehicles around the warehouse or logistics depot.

Driven by developments in Real Time Location Systems (RTLS), either utilising Wi-Fi or optical location services ‘I-GPS’ (Internal GPS functionality, location tracking systems are now able to pinpoint equipment or product positions to the nearest 50mm.

According to George Pecchair, solutions account manager with Peacock Bros, this technology leads solution providers and business operators into an era of item, pallet and packaging traceability that was not previously possible with just barcode scanning and hand-held devices.

“The combination of the latest indoor positioning systems, EPC Gen 2 standard technology and greater tag read capabilities has enabled the movement of pallets and forklifts around the warehouse environment to be accurately and efficiently tracked, automatically,” Pecchiar told Manufacturers Monthly.

“RFID capabilities have really come of age with the EPC Gen2 standard and product suites, with multiple international suppliers producing Gen2 tags for the supply chain and product coding marketplaces.

“The indoor positioning technology provides a greater level of accuracy by tracking pallet and Unit Load Device (ULD) movements around warehouse and logistics depots, as well as giving valuable forklift fleet data to management for operational enhancement and OH&S,” he explained.

“Products designed for manufacturing, warehousing and logistics depots incorporate these technologies as part of the total solution.

“Each company’s solution is uniquely different and the newer technologies are specifically tailored for each business unit.

“For example, some solutions do not need the 4watt RFID power to read the RFID tags. Other solutions use the forklift indoor positioning data to create better and more efficient production and warehouse areas.

“RFID enabled SSCC labels are paramount to the inventory tracking and mounted on pallet tags provide the returnable asset tracking portion,” Pecchiar said.

On the move

Improvements in scanning technology is also allowing for better floor utilisation and accurate product movement at point of transfer, reducing travel time as forklift operators always know their precise destination.

After a put-away, the technology can direct a forklift to do a pick at the closest available location in situations where like items may be stored in different areas.

Tony Repaci, Intermec’s GM for Aus/NZ says improvements in scan systems, such as area imagers, are providing more accurate and efficient reads.

“Area imagers can scan in any orientation and any angle, unlike linear scanning limitations. So, scanning product or location barcodes high up on racking in narrow isles becomes possible.”

Repaci explained that with RFID sensors built into forklifts, backend systems are able to capture the exact movements in real time pertaining to product movement.

“RFID readers on forklifts can also provide information such as product/item weight, and can automatically adjust carton clamp pressure to suit.

“Built-in industrial strength display monitors in forklifts, can direct drivers with visual and/or voice messages to certain locations/actions.

“These monitors together with image scan technology can capture images/pictures of damaged stock and at the same time can display video on the screen to the driver of hard to see locations — e.g. product being lifted for put-away or even showing the way in front of a loaded forklift,” he said.

With shorter, more direct routing from inception to production, not only is travel time reduced, but the associated labour, capital, maintenance and energy costs.

Rapaci says real-time product traceability and availability to increase the velocity of the supply chain can provide manufacturers with a real competitive advantage.

“If manufacturers have visibility of product before it gets to them, when they ship and deliver goods on an ongoing real time basis, they can then make better resource allocation decisions within their own manufacturing processes and base this on incoming orders and fulfilment as well as anticipated re-supply of their customers.”

“Potential ‘empty shelf’ scenarios can be avoided as a result of this visibility process which is enabled through a transparent RFID capability instead of having to manually touch products/pallets via scanning or other manual intervention,” Rapaci added.

Safety gets a lift

Not only is the RFID technology giving manufactures the ability to better track and trace and maintain their core assets used in their processes, it is also providing a boost for safety in the workplace.

Rod Chapman, GM fleet sales and marketing with Linde Materials Handling, says RFID as well as low frequency RF can also be used for safety applications.

“RFID can be used in several ways to assist with safety in the workplace, including driver identification and vehicle or location identification,” Chapman explained.

“Driver identification ensures that only correctly identified drivers can use a vehicle and offers the ability to restrict operators to a type, grade or specific vehicle.

“Vehicle identification can be used to record vehicle movement and general current position, while position identification allows the registration and management of speed limits or routine information to be supplied to a driver,” he said.

Chapman says the technology is designed with easily adjustable parameters often using RF proximity for open area zone speed control, which is primarily used for collision avoidance and vehicle to vehicle or vehicle to person proximity alarms, though the technology used, RF, RFID or infrared, “really depends on what is right for the application.”

He added that workplace and operator safety can be further enhanced using driver management modules which incorporate either a swipe card reader or pin code entry, so only authorised drivers can use each vehicle.

“Managers etc can also receive reports on the activity of each driver. These can be delivered as an immediate email alert in the case of non-compliance or as a daily email summary report.

“Add other options such as impact information and you can reduce equipment damage and drive out or re-educate the reckless drivers that seem to exist in all plants,” Chapman said.

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