Cycle Counting and Inventory Tracking with RFID and Mobile Robots

By 2022 the RFID market is expected to be worth $22 billion according to a recent Research and Markets report. This global value and the impressive 13.2% CAGR for the industry is a result of the thousands of companies that have already discovered the value that RFID can bring to their business, and thousands more that are expected to discover this value in the coming years.

The future of warehouse inventory is RFID Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

Even for those companies that have fully embraced RFID the infrastructure investment required to cover large warehouses with fixed readers is cost-prohibitive. Instead, employees are often tasked with walking the floor with a hand scanner once a week, or less, to complete a cycle count. With AMRs fitted with RFID scanners cycle counts or even full inventories can be completed in minutes, multiple times a day, without the need for human intervention.

Let’s take a real-world example of an automotive manufacturer and its reusable containers. Prior to adding RFID tags to their containers and installing RFID readers at their dock doors they might have been losing 15-20% of their total container stock annually. Replacement and expedited delivery of new containers could easily add up to millions of dollars in cost every quarter. By adding the insights that RFID tracking provide not only are they losing far fewer containers but they can track stock levels and prevent the fees associated with rush delivery of new containers. Of course these insights only go as far as the dock doors. They know that a container should be in the building, but where is it?

An intelligent and sensor packed AMR RFID solution can tell you where each of your assets is physically located within your facility in near-real time. Instead of spending the time and manpower to laboriously hunt down an item in a 300k ft2 facility you can have and RFID AMR provide regularly updated maps of your entire inventory. Cycle counts, which were once relegated to a once a week or even once a month activity become daily and automatic.

So how exactly do RFID equipped AMRs collect this data? Like all AMRs an AMR with integrated RFID reader does not require any modification to your working environment. AMRs can safely and precisely navigate through your facility with sensors like a wide angle laser scanner and 3D sensor. By moving a reader by your stock in a steady and consistent speed not only do you dramatically increase the chance of a getting a good read from a tag, regardless of its orientation, but you can triangulate the location of a tag. Because the AMR always knows where it is in your facility and uses multiple antennas to collect data, you can get high-confidence location data in a short period of time. Finally, AMRs can complete an inventory once a day, multiple times a day, or even collect data continuously. Long battery life means that AMRs can work with or around your shift schedule and, depending on the size of your facility, one or a small number of AMRs can provide 24/7 coverage.

Insights from RFID AMRs lead to increased asset use and material handling optimization

Real-time insight into where your assets are is great, but it can also help you to better use those assets and even make better production decisions based on that data. Let’s say you need to know whether to do another run of a particular high value part. What is your current stock level? Where is that stock? If you were to do another run would you have enough of the correct container to hold those parts? If your RFID solution includes an AMR then you’ve already got the answers at your fingertips. Even just knowing where your containers are could improve efficient use of those containers reducing additional container purchases, and, when your specialty part racks cost $3,000 a piece, each container matters.

When you can see assets moving through a facility over the course of a day inefficiencies become clear. Are container spares being moved to one side of a facility only to trucked back later in the day? Is valuable high-velocity space being taken up with slow moving inventory? A birds-eye view into the real location of your assets and their movement is the best way to answer these questions and more.

 AMRs beat the alternatives for in-warehouse inventory

Some have touted drones as the future of RFID scanning in storage yards and other outdoor locations and this very well may be true! They are not appropriate however for an indoor warehouse setting. Few drones can fly for much more than 20 minutes at a time and they still require a trained human pilot. To get safe, all-day worklife without adding headcount, AMRs are the way to go. Reliable, and far less likely to fall out of the sky, AMRs are the perfect in-warehouse piece to a complete RFID asset tracking solution.

Another advanced piece of an RFID solution is retrofitting forklifts with RFID readers. This can help with accuracy of slotting, pallet picking, and cross-docking operations. Unfortunately these readers are not intended to provide the kind of total warehouse coverage that high accuracy counting demands. A dedicated AMR on the other hand reliably and repeatedly travels to all locations of a warehouse you want scanned with readers and antenna configured specifically for maximum coverage. In one pass an RFID AMR can read pallets at ground level and on shelves dozens of feet off the ground.

By adding an RFID AMR to your total RFID solution you’ll be able to fulfill the promise of total asset visibility and tracking without adding people or even modifying your infrastructure.

Related links: RFID Asset Tracking – TagSurveyor

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