Sanderson Plumbing Meets Walmart RFID Compliance Mandate
Planning, partners lead Sanderson Plumbing Products to RFID success
Sanderson Plumbing Products made the most of the resources it had to create an extremely efficient RFID compliance-tagging program. Sanderson didn't have any RFID experience or a big budget when Wal-Mart told the company it needed to apply RFID smart labels on shipments by January 1, 2007. But Sanderson did have time to plan, and immediately took a proactive approach that produced a shipment tagging system that was tested and ready months ahead of deadline.
“When we learned of our RFID compliance requirements, our main concern was: 'How can we do it without spending a million dollars?'” says Tony Harper, Director of Information Systems at Sanderson Plumbing Products.
In August 2004, Harper and his colleague, Allen Bennett, Director of Materials Management, started researching RFID. “We wanted to keep our existing processes in place as much as possible and we wanted our warehouse management system to create an RFID label just like it creates bar code labels,” says Bennett. “That sounds simple, but it's not.”
Over the next 18 months they attended conferences and vendor shows, clipped countless articles from trade journals, researched on the Internet and visited sites with RFID projects. Disruption to existing processes and systems became a concern after Harper and Bennett began studying shipment-tagging systems other manufacturers had already installed. “We visited companies that had slap-and-ship RFID labeling systems in place. Most of them were segregating their RFID orders and the labeling process was very manual,” says Harper. “We thought we could do better than that.”
Sanderson's warehouse management system, Visual Warehouse from KARE Technologies, validates product that is picked for each order and automatically manages bar code label printing for outgoing shipments. RFID-tagged shipments need to be verified before they are released, but otherwise Sanderson wanted its processes to be the same for all orders at the Columbus, MS facility.
Sanderson sought a solution provider that was skilled in RFID implementations and could integrate with Visual Warehouse. By starting its RFID project more than a year before its compliance deadline, Sanderson developed a thorough understanding of its needs and could evaluate solution providers accordingly.
“If you have a warehouse management or other software system already in place, the main thing is to get the RFID reads into the system,” says Harper. “At first we struggled to determine what we needed from middleware. A lot of what's out there had many features that we really didn't need. We kept saying 'We don't understand why we have to spend that much just to get data from the reader to the system.'”
Careful evaluation led Sanderson to a system that matched its workflow and budget. Sanderson selected Mid-South Marking Systems, which integrated its Portal Track software with R110Xi printer/encoders from Zebra Technologies, plus fixed-position readers to create a compliance tagging and verification system that fits nearly seamlessly with KARE's Visual Warehouse system.
Zebra Technologies' R110Xi printer/encoders were installed on portable wireless carts alongside Sanderson's legacy bar code label printers. Workers utilize Visual Warehouse to pick and validate their orders and generate the proper labels for each carton on the portable wireless carts.. “Using the cart saves a lot of labor compared to operators having to go to a central location to pick labels,” says Bennett.
Sanderson utilizes Visual Warehouse to prepare Wal-Mart orders by building palletized units that match Wal-Mart's specifications. Workers then apply the necessary RFID labels to each case and pallet, and because Visual Warehouse builds an electronic file for each order, detailing the SKU number, the number of cartons of each SKU on a pallet, and a unique pallet number, integrating RFID carton and pallet tags was very easily introduced. A collaborative effort involving Mid-South Marking and KARE Technologies provided Sanderson with a system that required few changes.
With Wal-Mart's staggered rollout of RFID into their warehouses, not every warehouse order requires RFID. Ordinarily, this might present a problem when workers on the shipping floor might not know which orders required RFID, so KARE Technologies incorporated a table into Visual Warehouse which automatically directs the label printing jobs to the RFID printers or to the legacy printers. This step assures management that every order for an RFID-enabled warehouse is tagged.
RFID orders are worked just like any other order, but when RFID labels are required, the worker uses a portable wireless cart to print the required labels. An RFID tag is printed for each carton on every pallet but rather than having them printed in one large batch, they are printed on demand, by pallet, one carton at a time. A wireless scan of each pallet's identification bar code is matched against a detailed table in Visual Warehouse and an RFID print job is sent to the portable cart.
The RFID labels include the required EPC data and human-readable text detailing the SKU number and a unique carton number. The worker pulls RFID labels one at a time from the Zebra R110Xi printer/encoders and applies them to the cartons, needing only to match the SKU number on the RFID label with that on the existing carton label. Each pallet is tagged and completed before moving the portable cart on to the next pallet. Visual Warehouse monitors the labeling process for each pallet on the order and it will not allow the worker to electronically complete the order until all of the RFID labels have been printed.
Completed RFID pallets are moved to the stretch wrapping station where fixed-position readers scan the pallets as they rotate on the turntable. A high number of reads from various angles is achieved through this technique. The portal reads all the EPC-standard carton labels on the pallet. Mid-South's Portal Track software processes the read data and compares it to the order information in Visual Warehouse. Order errors or label problems are detected immediately. If a carton on the pallet doesn't belong with the order, the operator gets notification and the carton is removed. Portal Track updates Visual Warehouse with the label verification statistics. Visual Warehouse provides Sanderson with the ability to verify that each carton on the pallet has been read and allow warehouse personnel to generate a new label from a RF data collection device for those labels that need to be replaced.
“We don't have to print many replacement labels,” says Bennett. “When we did site visits we saw a lot of label quality problems, but that hasn't been an issue for us. We decided to standardize on Zebra because they make a good industrial printer that fits in our environment. They've also been out front with RFID, and that's important.”
Zebra printer/encoders verify that each smart label they produce is readable and has been encoded correctly. If an RFID inlay fails to encode, a large “VOID” is printed across the label and a replacement can be automatically generated. Mid-South Marking took advantage of the R110Xi's programmable ZPL printer command language to create a Portal Track application that monitors printer/encoder activity and collects statistics about usage and the number of good and bad labels produced. The data is presented in pie charts that Sanderson can use to monitor quality and identify potential operator, equipment or supply problems.
It's business-as-usual leading up to the compliance-tagging deadline, which means Sanderson Plumbing Products met it goal of minimal disruption. Sanderson will go live in December 2006 by tagging and shipping approximately 16 SKUs, but is prepared to scale if more products or Wal-Mart distribution centers require tagged shipments.
“We don't expect much of a learning curve,” says Bennett, director of supply chain operations at the facility. “Introducing RFID will not be much different from what our employees are doing now. Our RFID orders don't need to be segregated, and they don't require a lot of manual processing. We don't have to pull stuff aside right before shipping to put on a smart label. These were all important goals that we met.”
Spending a lot of time understanding current processes and figuring out how RFID could fit in was a big key to success. Having partners that were committed to integrate with Sanderson's systems and processes, rather than selling their own packaged, predefined systems, was also very important. That helped Sanderson find a solution that fit well into its budget.
“You can spend as much or as little as you need to get RFID data into the software system,” says Harper. “Some of the middleware we looked at cost five or six times as much as what we spent to do the entire system.”