Applying RFID tags in the distribution center is a simple process, right? So simple, it’s been referred to as “slap & stick,” with the whole process of applying the radio-frequency ID tags and shipping referred to as “slap & ship.” But hold on! It’s really not all that simple, according to Dedham, MA-based ARC Advisory Group. ARC conducted a Best Practices Study, getting responses from 24 companies that were actively investing in EPC RFID. RFID tags can be applied at the packaging line or the DC — and, in the ARC sample, 85% of the facilities where tags were applied were distribution centers. However, says Steve Banker, Service Director for Supply Chain Management at ARC Advisory Group, “even when tags are applied at the DC, the term ‘slap and ship’ does not fairly reflect what is going on at many DCs. There is both more automation, and more process variation, than has been generally recognized.”
According to ARC, the general process for applying RFID tags at the DC would be to identify the orders that need RFID tags and divert those pallets to a special Value Added Service (VAS) station. In manual “slap & ship” methodology, the shrink wrap is then removed from the pallet, cases are taken off, tags are applied to cases, the tags are verified to be good, cases are reloaded onto the pallet, shrink wrap is reapplied to the pallet, a pallet tag is applied and verified, and the pallet is sent to the appropriate loading dock. Thus, notes ARC, tagging cases in the DC wastes labor because previously assembled pallets have to be broken down and reassembled. There are also two additional methodologies suppliers can utilize. One involves the use of conveyors either to move pallets or cases to the VAS tag application station, or from the RFID tag application station to a palletization station, or from a palletization station to the appropriate shipping dock. Conveyor lines may also contain “start and stop gates,” which are necessary to stop the line and allow tag application to proceed when tags cannot be encoded or applied at high speed, and “diverts,” which allow cases whose tags cannot be verified to be diverted off to a side station for reapplication of tags. A third methodology is to preprint encoded RFID labels and then apply these labels to the cases upon picking the cases. Typically, this would be pick-to-cart for mixed pallet orders.
None of these methodologies is mutually exclusive; a company may chose to utilize more than one in the same DC. Each has valid reasons for its use. And even the “slap and ship” methodology can be more variable than many recognize; for example, while RFID tags will usually be applied at a pre-existing RFID VAS station, in some instances it may make more sense to apply these tags at an ad hoc station set up on the receiving dock, depending upon staffing and capacity issues.
For further information on ARC Advisory Group and its RFID Best Practices study, visit www.ARCweb.com.