Warehouse Technology

By IBT Inc

February 01, 2004

Supply Chain

The Art and Science of Keeping Track

Much discussion was held, several years ago, over the Japanese innovation of “kan-ban” – or just in time.

The logic of JIT is simple – and understandable: when you need something – a part, component, sub-assembly – just reach out and there it is.

No muss. No fuss. No delay. No mistakes.

Well, like truth and beauty, it was perhaps easier to talk about than to achieve. However, there has been some progress towards greater effectiveness in logistics – which has been sort of reborn as “supply chain management.”

To reduce the equation to its simplest form, what it really means is this: Have what you need. Know where it is. Have the right amount (not too much, not too little). Buy it as you need it. Locate it where it will do the most good. Don’t waste time, money or motion handling it or shifting it around.

Sounds pretty easy, right

At IBT, our involvement in the process is two-fold: we have to manage our own supply chains. And, we have experience, expertise and equipment to provide help for our customers.

The puzzle is made more solvable by looking at its components:

  • What do you need?
  • Where do you get it?
  • How fast do you use it?
  • How long in advance do you need to anticipate its use?
  • What kind of transport, receiving, inspection, handling, storing, moving and positioning issues are there?
  • What are the cost factors involved in maintaining orderly flow?
  • What are the downsides of inaccurate planning?
  • How can you make the process most efficient?
  • What investment can you make in technology that will pay dividends?
  • Who can you get to help you?

The first four questions should be answerable from internal information. If your operation is thriving or surviving, you must have some decent handle on where you are around those four issues.

The rest of the questions might present greater challenges.

The last question, however, has an easy answer: IBT. We are here to help our customers with many questions relating to supply chain management, especially with questions that involve the physical issues connected with orderly flow of goods and the efficient handling and storage of both raw materials, work in process and finished goods awaiting shipment.

IBT has years of experience in creative and cost-efficient problem solving for every type of material handling and storage challenge you might imagine. They combine engineering knowledge, extensive industrial experience, broad internal expertise – and throw in a vast array of material handling, warehousing and storage products that can be combined in an infinite number of configurations to solve your unique problem.

IBT understands the importance of building good systems applications to achieve greatest efficiency. Thousands of companies have learned to depend on IBT for the right systematic solutions for moving, handling, manipulating, sorting, storing, accumulating, palletizing, depalletizing, bagging, debagging, pouring, packing, securing, racking, shelving, shifting, retrieving, identifying and transferring just about any commodity, goods or products you can imagine.

Staying up with the technology of all this is an important pursuit. The latest and most interesting technological innovation is RFID (radio frequency identification).

RFID is a system that attaches a “tag” to an item of merchandise – or to a pallet. The tag carries information which can be read remotely through radio frequency. Tags can be “passive” or “active.”

Passive tags are small (1 cm square – about 0.16 sq in), light and flexible and have an electronic circuit capable of being printed on flexible plastic. They hold a limited amount of information and can be read only when they pass near a specialized reader. The reader induces a small current in the tags, which can be read. Passive tags are seen as the ones likely to be used in retail: attached to goods and used to keep track of inventory, prevent shrinkage, etc.

Active tags are more versatile. They contain more information. They have a silicon chip, an antenna and a small battery. The active RF tags are usually a few centimeters across.

Active tags send out a signal for as long as the battery holds out. The range of the signal is around 50 meters (about 165 feet).

There has been considerable discussion about RFID tags. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has advised its largest suppliers to be RFID ready by 2005. The rest of their vendors have an additional year.

Despite the powerful urging of Wal-Mart, there are problems to be overcome. Cost is one. Even at a price of a dime per tag, large manufacturers could spend millions. At a nickel, the cost may be somewhat more easily borne.

There are technical difficulties as well. Water and metal can have an effect on the quality or clarity of the signal. Then, there is the question of information management. In an already info-glutted world, RFID tags would add oceans more data – which would have to be collected, cataloged, examined and analyzed to be useful.

On the up side, experts say, monitoring supply chains and processes will be made easier and more precise than ever before. Whether the factors favoring the new system will be sufficient to lead to its wide scale adoption is still an open question.

And as the progress of RFID and other technological innovations and adaptations becomes clear, IBT will be closely monitoring the situation – and ready to respond to its customers needs in a thorough, timely and professional manner.