The time is ripe

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The government is encouraging companies to invest with a rise in the Annual Investment Alowance, making it a good time to look at new data capture systems.

The time is ripe for investment in data capture systems. The government’s Annual Investment Allowance cap has been raised to £250,000, a ten fold increase, for two years, meaning rebates on a much a larger scale, and therefore a golden two years for large scale installations.

Marks and Spencer, for one, has decided that now is the time to extend its use of RFID across all its retail departments, including home ware and clothing. Having used the same supplier Avery Denison for nine years this project is being rolled between now and Spring 2014.

Raising the AIA cap will certainly make cases for investment compelling. “It’s like getting a 20 per cent discount on the cost of new equipment,” says Andrew Southgate of Zetes.

On the other hand, the aim to minimise capital outlay has resulted in the Bring Your Own Device trend, using workers’ own personal devices and smart phones for work. This really caught on before the change in AIA was announced as it reduces hardware costs.

But while BYOD might minimise initial cash spend on equipment, in practice this doesn’t always guarantee massive cost savings. “Issues of concern are consumer network tariffs and coverage; managing the expenses; liability for costs if damaged while using for work, and any associated tax implications,” says Stephen Szikora of NFT.

There are also issues with estate management, ensuring there are enough devices for the entire workforce and spares, as well as whether equipment such as smart phones are capable of adequate quality data capture, and rugged enough to survive distribution centre or transport operations.

Ian Davies of Motion, says: “some basic tasks can be handled but the second you add the need for bar code or RFID scanning in, there is a concern. Then there is also the fact that smart phones are rarely equipped to handle the kind of throughput/number of transactions you typically see in logistics.”

For these reasons some are seeing BYOD as most appropriate for management level employees who will probably be less likely to test the robustness of equipment, and who may need to remain “on the grid” outside regular working hours. These executives are also more likely to make use of dashboard style data management tools offered by more sophisticated devices and smart phones typically seen on BYOD schemes.

But this leads to the thorny issue of whether it’s really appropriate, or even safe, for employees to have the kind of access to information that BYOD usually entails.
Working out of the office is great, but crucial market data being bandied about the pub is another matter. “The more senior the user then the more sensitive the data… Security is the number one issue for BYOD in data capture,” says Szikora.

Whichever way you look at it, making business data accessible to machines that operate outside of the work environment is a risk. Allowing staff to use their own devices also introduces the potential for them to bring malware into the working environment that could be transferred to the corporate system.

“It also raises the possibility of people deliberately trying to access corporate information on their device which they could then take away from the workplace to use/exploit elsewhere,” says Alex Mills of Chess Logistics Technology.

To that end, there are device management packages that can protect corporate data, but depending on the scope of the BYOD project, they will have to support a variety of makes and models of device and this will come at a price. Southgate points out that BYOD operators will also incur the additional cost of the extra help desk staff required to manage these new devices and the training of these staff.

“All things considered these issues will mean BYOD works out to be a more costly route than the traditional model of providing an estate of rugged data capture devices for logistics operations,” says Southgate.

Intermec’s Jo Brookes agrees. “Don’t just consider the initial capital expenditure, but think about how long the devices will last out in the field. How reliable will they be? How often will they need repair or replacement? What service and/or support agreement can you get with them?

“How can you standardise on the operating system load and application, so that all your workers are working the same way? How easy is it to install and maintain the devices? … A cheaper device can be a false economy in the long run,” says Brookes.

With the new tax breaks, perhaps the next two years are the time for firms to put their money where their data capture systems are. Of course, that could mean the latest top of the range industry specific devices, or  a fully managed system to support all the peripheral costs of a BYOD operation.

Case study- Water soluble RFID to track pulp bales

Metsä, a manufacturer of wood and paper products such as tissue, board and pulp, has a turnover of some 5.3 billion euros and operates across 30 countries.

Its fibre business delivers some 2.4 million tons of pulp in different grades and qualities. For its customers, on-time delivery of the correct pulp product is mission critical, and they typically have had to keep buffer stock.

The firm was considering the implementation of RFID-based system to offer more efficient logistics’ processes and better customer service.

By implementing Vilant’s RFID solution, Metsä Fibre wished to improve the accuracy of shipments, so as to reduce errors, and therefore requirement for buffer stock, and also to allow customers to trace material flow on arrival to customer mill sites.

The system includes passive RFID tags, readers and software. Each tag has a unique id number encoded in them. At Metsä’s pulp mills, RFID tags are encoded and automatically applied inside every tonne unit of pulp between bales. When scanned, the tag discloses the pulp unit’s grade name and production lot number.
When pulp is processed by the customer, the tags and adhesive dissolve on contact with water and do not affect the quality of the end product.

Tags may be scanned with forklift readers, gate readers or handheld readers at any point in the logistics chain.

Vilant software connects fixed, forklift and handheld RFID readers to Metsä Fibre’s back end system. It offers global control for its RFID based logistics process. An entire shipment of tagged pulp can be identified quickly and easily with almost 100 per cent accuracy. At ports and terminals, operators can use RFID for tracking shipments and identifying bales quickly and accurately.

Metsä has taken on the RFID solution at four of its pulp mills. It has found the Vilant RFID system to be an effective and reliable way to track its products, generating significant savings in material flow management.

It has reduced manual work and errors, and also offers delivery control and real-time shipment visibility.

Case study- Bridgestone rolls out the mobiles

Tyre manufacturer Bridgestone equips some 200 million vehicles, and has nine tyre manufacturing plants, three logistics centres, a major R&D and testing centre and two proving grounds.

It reckons that to maintain its profitability it needs to maximise the availability of products to customers, while minimising inventory across its diverse range of products.

Updating its warehouse forklifts with the latest generation of vehicle-mounted mobile computers has helped Bridgestone to speed up data handling, drive down error rates and eliminate unnecessary forklift mileage, saving time and energy consumption.

Bridgestone decided on the Thor VX8 mobile computers, which run Windows XP and can be seamlessly integrated into the existing warehouse management software.

The firm reckons that the Thor VX8 has helped to improve the reliability of its inventory management by facilitating faster and more accurate tracking of products.

It has also taken on Honeywell’s 8650 Bluetooth Ring Scanners to speed up its quality check process. Bridgestone’s factory workers examine every tyre and capture each individual product ID. Ring scanners allow hands free data capture, allowing workers to handle heavy and bulky tyres.

The manufacturer has also deployed several Honeywell Dolphin 7800 mobile computers, so that production and logistics managers can identify and respond to situations wherever they occur much more quickly than before.

The warehouse manager uses Honeywell’s rugged Marathon field computer, which enables constant contact with mission-critical applications in the ERP system throughout the vast warehouse.

The whole collection of remote devices is managed by Honeywell’s Remote Mastermind, which Bridgestone reckons has minimised IT maintenance.

Bridgestone reckons the benefits of the devices include reduced errors, recovery costs and forklift mileage, more accurate real-time reporting and alerts as well as simplified mobile device management.

Product launch- Shush! High noise readers

Intermec has launched versions of its CK70, CN70 and CN70e mobile computers with integrated UHF RFID readers with no external antennae.

Designed for demanding on-premise environments, they support medium to long-range read distances and can read one or multiple tags at once.

“This new solution combines RFID reading, with the already solid feature set of the industry-leading 70 Series platform to meet or exceed typical handheld RFID read range requirements in a design that is more compact and comfortable to use than existing solutions,” says Earl Thompson, Intermec senior vice president, mobile solutions business.

Sick has also launched an RFID reader for high noise environments. The RFU630 UHF reader has one integrated antenna and can be connected to three external antennae for transponder identification despite distortion and signal reflection caused by proximity to heavy metal machinery.

“Extensive trials of the RFU630 conducted by Sick with a European prestige car manufacturer confirmed metal component identification to over 99.98 per cent while located in the paint shop in up to 2300C conditions,” says Tim Stokes, RFID specialist for Sick.

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