The Untapped Potential Of RFID Technology For Accurate Inventory Visibility

Containing costs. Improving operating efficiencies. Gaining visibility to inventory and assets. That’s the power of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. While implementations proliferate across industries, owners and operators of vehicle fleets have only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible with solutions powered by RFID. With enhanced visibility across the spectrum of fleet management and maintenance operations, today’s RFID systems provide new approaches to solving old challenges - and deliver real, measurable results.

Simply put, RFID systems enable automatic identification and data capture from a distance, without a line of sight requirement. They consist of a reader (sometimes called an interrogator) and a tag (sometimes called a transponder). Typically, the reader sends out electromagnetic waves with a signal the RFID tag is designed to respond to.

RFID tags can be either active or passive. Passive tags have no power source. They draw power from the field created by the reader. Active tags have a battery power source and broadcast their signal at regular intervals like a beacon.

ACCURATE INFORMATION

In many respects, fleet and maintenance managers may be blind to the critical inventory and assets they manage. And you can’t impact or improve what you can’t see or don’t know.

While existing in-vehicle technologies such as trip monitors report some details like mileage, oil pressure, telemetry and fuel utilization, they can’t tell you everything. RFID solutions provide different and complementary information, providing a more complete view around critical fleet management assets. Available technologies make it easy to accurately track parts, tools, repairs, maintenance histories and business processes.

Fleet and maintenance managers can also use RFID to increase efficiencies by streamlining data capture procedures and minimizing or eliminating error-prone, time-intensive manual processes.

While every fleet’s needs and challenges are unique, RFID tags, readers and software can transform how companies work, by facilitating:

  • Automated inventory control and procurement of spare parts.
  • Improved equipment and personnel utilization.
  • Better use of labor pool.
  • Minimization of errors and equipment loss.
  • Fast and accurate vehicle check-in, fueling and weighing.
  • Instant access to vehicle maintenance and repair histories.
  • Locating and monitoring vehicles on the road or at company yards.
  • Enhanced visibility to driver behavior to increase safety and reduce risks.

By capturing, moving and managing vehicle data across the enterprise, managers can reduce maintenance costs and optimize fleet utilization.

RECORD KEEPING PROCESSES

In many respects, vehicle fleets are only as effective as their fleet operations. The time, resources and expenses required to keep that fleet operating at peak performance are considerable.

RFID solutions make it easy to capture, store and analyze vehicle and parts performance data, maintenance records and even warranty information. This arms technicians with valuable information at the point of work and allows for the initiation of a wide variety of back-end processes.

Boeing, as an example, is putting RFID tags with complete maintenance histories on critical airplane parts. If a component fails while a plane is in transit, the pilot or crew can read the data stored on the tag to get the part number and warranty information, and then radio ahead to have the part waiting at their next destination. This allows maintenance crews to address the issue quickly and efficiently once the plane lands with minimal business disruption.

AVOIDABLE LOSSES

Loss is an ongoing business challenge associated with fleet management. Replacement costs of lost or unaccounted tools, parts and fuel rob operations of critical profits and drive up the overall cost of doing business. RFID can greatly minimize these losses by tracking all critical assets.

Parts and tools can be tagged and either scanned by handheld readers or fixed readers on bins or at doorways to identify users and when they were checked out or returned. Embedded Geiger counter functionality can help handheld readers locate the precise location of tagged equipment when a general location or area is identified.

Fuel utilization is another area where RFID technology can be deployed to minimize loss. When fleets are dispersed geographically and have access to company-owned gas stations nationwide, it’s difficult to ensure gas is going into company-owned vehicles versus other uses.

Putting RFID tags on vehicle fuel doors and readers at yard entrances and on pumps allows only authorized vehicles to access the fuel. This reduces costs and minimizes the opportunity for theft to occur.

THE RIGHT SOLUTION

Today, RFID technology can solve many business challenges and value is clearly the most important metric for a successful RFID implementation. To determine your value proposition, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will the performance of the RFID technology satisfy your basic asset and inventory visibility and management needs?
  • Does it provide the speed, range and reliability to track critical assets better than you can right now?
  • What reductions to fleet maintenance and management operating expenses can you realize for the capital invested in RFID?
  • What significant capital expenses for your fleet could be reduced or delayed by deploying an efficient solution based on RFID technologies?

Holistic and complete RFID solutions have three main components: tags, readers and software. The value of deploying a solution built upon each of these three pillars has evolved significantly, with substantial gains in technical performance and notably more attractive price points fueling a more compelling return on investment (ROI) model for fleet owners and operators.

PERFORMANCE FACTORS

For optimal results, you need to evaluate the available options against your core business objectives. Key factors that dictate performance of an RFID-based fleet management and maintenance solution include:

  • Tag sensitivity: This is the ability of the chip to be energized and to maximize the signal strength to send its enclosed data back to the reader. The greater the chip sensitivity, the longer the read range.
  • Tag size: Larger generally means longer range. Always look to implement the largest tag possible for the application.
  • Tag shape: Different tag antenna shapes provide remarkably different levels of performance.
  • Number and size of reader antennas: Just as tag size dictates performance, so, too, does the size and orientation of the reader antennas. Different read locations will have different requirement, so it’s important to choose a reader that can support various antenna types.
  • Speed: This is the rate at which the reader collects tag identifiers. Rapid read rates increase the reliability of tag reads and are less likely to impose burdens on business processes due to the downstream exception-based processes that occur with missed reads.
  • Type of reader: Fixed readers are ideal when tagged objects are mobile, such as vehicles, trailers, tools, parts and even workers. Handheld readers work best on stationary assets – shelves, pallets and stationary trucks, planes or tractor trailers.

SOFTWARE

The third leg of the RFID solution stool is software. Options abound here. However, most existing maintenance and inventory systems don’t support RFID data, so a separate solution that can be integrated into your back-end will likely need to be implemented.

First, determine what information you need captured and how it will be used. For example, if it’s important that you capture date and time stamps when maintenance tools are checked out or in, then look for applications that can record that.

Or, if you need to drive greater efficiencies in parts management, consider options that can trigger a restocking order when the last part is taken off a shelf and the shelf tag is scanned.

Lastly, ensure the desired application can easily be mobilized while, at the same time, integrate with existing core business systems.

EXPERIENCE MATTERS

The vast majority of RFID deployments today are led by experienced vendors and integrators. Due to the complexity and variability of solution components, you need to look for – and ultimately work with – reputable companies that offer a variety of tag and reader options, a strong ecosystem of partners, demonstrated results and positive customer references.

While RFID is still in its infancy within fleet-based operations, opportunities abound. With RFID technology costs steadily decreasing as adoption continues to grow, fleet managers can look to successful deployments in asset management, warehouse and yard management for best practices that can help inspire their own companies to invest in RFID and realize the enormous returns.

John Rommel is the senior manager of RFID channel development for Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com), a leading provider of leading edge, mission-critical communication products and services for enterprise and government customers.

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