Managing Warehouses with RTLS

Whether you are responsible for managing the inventory in your retail backroom or a manufacturing distribution center, having visibility of all your assets is necessary for a productive and compliant warehouse. Although the most common type of technology used in warehouses is Radio-frequency Identification (RFID), both Active and Passive RFID alone provide limited visibility that depends on the last transmission. In order to have continuous visibility, a Real-time Location Service (RTLS) solution utilizing active RFID is the only way to go. Location accuracy can range anywhere from meters to centimeters depending on the technology. There are several different types of RTLS technologies used for location systems. However, the real question is, “What are your needs?” Having all the technology in the world is pointless unless your warehouse has a strategic plan. To help create a plan that makes sense for your warehouse, here are some ways warehouse managers can utilize a RTLS solution…..

 

People

One way warehouses use tags for RTLS is on team members, visitors, and contractors. These wearable tags can come as a necklace, a wristband, a watch, a pen, a belt, and even a hardhat. The question is, “What kind of wearable tag will work best for your people?”

The number one reason warehouses give asset tracking tags to people is for health and safety. According to the US Department of Labor, “In 2019, the total rate of injuries or illness was 4.8 per 100 full-time workers. With all the work-related injuries and illness that warehouses experienced in 2019, 24 of them lead to fatalities.” With wearable tags, these losses can be prevented or at least mitigated.

Mustering

During emergencies or emergency drills, managers want the visibility of knowing who has and has not evacuated the building. Traditionally, multiple managers would have to stand around a building and cross off the names on a sheet of paper. With wearable tags, you know who has and has not left the building, and you can measure and analyze how quickly everyone left the building.

Panic Buttons

In addition, anyone unable to exit the building during a fire drill could press a panic button on their tag. First responders could locate the person and know what is hindering their ability to escape. Panic buttons could also be activated due to injuries, heart attacks, or other emergencies requiring assistance.

Social Distancing

Although restrictions are easing up, it is vital to protect the health of your people. Using RTLS, managers can monitor team members and visitors as they interact with one another. Not only can people be tracked in real-time, but tracking can happen retroactively.  In other words, if someone has tested positive, all of their interactions and proximities are recorded. These interactions can help specify who to place in quarantine.

Sensing Air Quality

Most warehouses already have sensors throughout the building to catch things like carbon dioxide or gas leaks. However, tags worn by personnel can increase the speed with which a system reacts. With personnel wearing sensors, not only is the system more likely to sense the unhealthy environment, but a real-time location or source can quickly become established.

Navigation

With an indoor navigation system, people can find the shortest or fastest route to their destination. Some tags have the capabilities to assist visually impaired people with audible guidance. Plus, as people continue to make their rounds throughout the warehouse, their patterns and heatmaps form. These heatmaps can display movement and interactions. These systems increase operational efficiency by highlighting which areas are receiving and needing the most attention. 

Security

With RFID systems, certain restricted rooms could be locked or unlocked with a passive key card. However, what if a warehouse needs to restrict an entire section of the building? There might not be a door to keep people out. Instead, RTLS tags monitor people the whole time. When somebody walks into a restricted zone, they receive an audible warning from their wearable tag, or a supervisor can walk over to their exact location.      

Productivity

Are people where they are supposed to be and doing what they are supposed to be doing?  Monitoring the location of people can help determine whether contractors are invoicing for the correct amount of time spent or whether too much time is being spent in a particular area.  Managers can improve process efficiencies by knowing how much time people spent in a specific location.

 

Inventory

The second broad way warehouses can use RTLS is for inventory. RTLS tags are excellent for tracking inventory as it makes its way through a production process. Whether it is storage, distribution, or manufacturing, RTLS tags can assist managers with knowing how much time WIP spent in a certain location, or where to find a specific lot or inventory item. Knowing location and tracking progress can limit booking errors, streamline workflow, and shorten lead-time.

Improving Picking Rates

Not all inventory storage is on ground level. Many times entire racks of inventory are stored on the top shelf. RTLS technology is capable of locating items both in horizontal and vertical spaces (x, y and z coordinates). This accuracy improves the speed workers can find inventory. That said, better picking rates does not just mean speed. For example, a worker needs an asset, but that particular product is in multiple places throughout the warehouse. An RTLS system can help an employee navigate to the correct location.  

Virtual Production Stages

With geofencing, assets can be inside or outside a zone that corresponds to a desired action or stage in completion. Although geofencing is not about locating inventory, it can help with tracking the manufacturing process. When the asset leaves a zone, the system is alerted. This helps managers track the overall progress of the entire warehouse ecosystem.

Digital Kanban Cards

Kanban helps workers and managers visualize their workflow, and keep everyone on the same page. When an RTLS tag is attached to a pallet of materials or a product making its way down the assembly line, digital Kanban cards ensure manual-entry errors are limited, and lead-time is shorter. Everyone in the warehouse can visualize the location and progress of assets in real-time.

Quality Management

When it comes to market differentiation, manufacturing quality products is essential. RTLS tags help measure the correctness of the production process. A key aspect of quality control is inspections throughout the process. Imagine if a worker noticed a potential defect in the product, but a manager was busy and unable to inspect the product immediately. With an RTLS tag, the worker could report the issue so that a manager could come to look at a later time. Some tags can even monitor and communicate the condition factors of an asset.  

Finding Work In Process

We’ve had many customers of large manufactured items need to locate partially completed WIP or finished goods in a warehouse or in a yard. For example, a vehicle or rail car may be completed except for one missing part. When that part comes in, RTLS tags help employees locate the item and finish production quickly and efficiently.

 

Equipment and Machinery

The third broad use for RTLS in the warehouse is equipment and machinery. When essential equipment is lost, the warehouse is at risk of losing thousands of dollars or missing production or shipping deadlines. 

RTLS tags optimize the role of all assets, maximizing utilization while minimizing misuse.

Tool and Equipment Tracking

Every project has a specific set of tools.  Most companies choose to save money by having different departments share these tools. The problem with shared tools is that they can get easily misplaced or hoarded. Hand tools such as a digital caliper, rechargeable batteries, Allen keys, or socket wrenches are a great example. While small, these tools are necessary. Maybe a machinist is going on his lunch break but doesn’t want to spend thirty minutes looking for or waiting for a digital caliper when he gets back. What does the machinist do? He hides the digital caliper in a job box. During his lunch break, someone cannot complete a task because that tool is missing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen every once in a while. It happens every day in almost every single warehouse and manufacturing plant. RTLS can help you find small hand tools or even a missing job box. New reductions in the cost of RTLS allow you to implement asset tracking solutions that can cost-effectively track even the smallest items that are critical to your operations.

Equipment Utilization

How do you reduce the amount of equipment you need to have on hand? By monitoring its utilization to determine the right number to have available, so you don’t invest more than you need to in unused equipment, but you have enough to meet your production or warehouse demands. RTLS solutions can provide insights on equipment usage and location.

Managing Equipment Maintenance

Knowing how much equipment has been utilized can be coordinated with equipment maintenance schedules. When it’s time for a specific piece of equipment to have routine maintenance performed, employees can easily locate the equipment and return it to its previous location when the maintenance is complete.

Compliance

Need to prove to your auditors that equipment exists and where it’s located at a specific point in time? RTLS analytics can provide the information you need for documentation.

Overhead Crane Tracking

An indirect way to track assets is through an overhead crane that is moving these materials. Anytime the overhead crane loads or unloads, the system can monitor movement throughout the warehouse. Not only can overhead cranes monitor the flow of assets, but RTLS can also help prevent unloading in incorrect locations by alerting the crane that it is in the wrong zone.

Forklifts- Historical Insights

One of the most popular reasons to use RTLS in a warehouse is forklifts, AVG’s, and fork trucks. Knowing the real-time location of forklifts is very useful, but RTLS can also track the historical movements. This data measures the average distance traveled per day, loading and unloading time, and run-time vs. stop-time. Some systems can even display heatmaps that show the density and flow of traffic. This information helps managers utilize the process  of their fleet.

Forklifts-Route Optimization

Fuel costs money. And idle time or getting lost costs the warehouse a lot of money. Adding a visual display on a forklift can help drivers consistently find the quickest path to any location. If forklifts have an RTLS tag, drivers can avoid bottlenecks and traffic. Displays linked to an RTLS system can increase optimization while driving down costs.

Forklifts- Sensing Shocks

Many times forklift drives accidentally bump shelves or stacks of pallets, creating the potential for an immediate or delayed collapse of materials. The beautiful thing about RTLS tags is that they  can transmit unusual vibrations of a forklift bumping into a stack of pallets or a shelf. When this happens, managers can be alerted and send someone to verify the level of danger and that the inventory or equipment has not been damaged and still meets quality standards.

 

Wrapping It Up

Although this article has mentioned seventeen different use cases that warehouse managers may face, this is by no means an exhaustive list. These examples are simply a starting point for any warehouse that wants to make a strategic plan. Here at Link-Labs, we specialize in cost-efficient asset tracking and identification. If any of these use cases seem beneficial to you, please do not hesitate to reach out…

To learn more about the gold standard in indoor and outdoor asset tracking, request a demo today.

Philip Bender

Written by Philip Bender

Philip Bender is a data analytics leader with a specialty in data integration, business intelligence, and applied statistics. He has over 15+ years of experience with proven success in designing, building, and delivering syndicated and customized data analytics solutions to meet and exceed client needs within multiple industries. He has expertise in advising clients on complex and critical business issues such as understanding consumers, prioritizing market opportunities, and acquiring and retaining customers. Prior to Philip’s current role at Link Labs, he worked in various fields under roles such as Senior Analytics Consultant and Director of Analytics, Applied Statistics, and Product Innovation. Philip has an educational background in political science and mathematics, where he fulfilled his studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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