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Equipment 101: Data capture basics

Data capture technology can help an operation see its products in real time and take proactive steps to keep materials moving smoothly through the supply chain. Here’s a look at several basic data capture technologies.

Voice technology is often applied to labor-intensive activities, like piece picking, putaway, replenishment and cycle counting.

By Lorie King Rogers, Associate Editor
October 01, 2011

Radio frequency (RF) technology has been around for decades. During World War II, it was used to identify friendly aircraft; in current times this technology is used for such things as animal tracking, toll collection and keyless entry. It also has many industrial uses, including several in materials handling.

Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a form of automatic identification used to carry data about an object and transfer it to a computer, reducing the time and labor needed for manual data entry.

A basic RFID system includes an RFID tag, a reader and a host computer. When a reader energizes a tag, the data stored on in the tag’s memory is transmitted to the reader using radio waves. The reader then communicates the necessary data to the host computer so the computer’s software can act on the data.

RFID tags
Most RFID tags have at least two parts:

  • a silicon chip for storing information, and

  • an antenna for receiving and transmitting a signal.

Tags can come in a variety of sizes and shapes, depending on the application. Those used in shipping labels combine a tiny square chip (smaller than the head of a pin) with a 3- to 4-inch-wide antenna. Two of the most common antenna shapes for shipping labels are squiggle and double cross designs.

RFID tags can have high or low memory capacity. High-memory tags can cost tens of dollars, while low-memory tags can cost tens of cents.

RFID tags can be active, passive or semi-passive.

  • Active tags include a battery and use its power to transmit the signal. The battery gives an active tag an especially long read range, about 100 meters, according to Alan Sherman, director of marketing for OATSystems. It also increases the price of the tag, so active tags are used to track very high-value assets or in closed-loop applications where the same tag might be used hundreds of times.

  • Passive tags have no batteries and instead use energy from an RFID reader to power their transmissions. Passive tags are less expensive, but have a limited read range, about 30 feet using fixed readers, says Sherman.

  • Semi-passive tags, also called battery-assisted tags, use batteries to boost the response of a passive tag. These tags have about a 100-foot read range.

RFID readers
As with bar codes, RFID readers are available in a number of form factors. Fixed readers can be mounted at portals, like dock doors, or integrated as part of a conveyor system. Handheld devices can be carried or worn by an operator, and vehicle-mounted readers can be mounted on a lift truck. Some RFID reading devices can be mounted on a vehicle then lifted off and carried by an operator.

RFID offers some advantages over bar codes.

  • No human intervention is needed to read an RFID tag, which broadcasts the information on the tag to an RFID reader. RFID readers can be mounted throughout a facility, including the ceiling. This “eye-in-the-sky” position provides visibility of movement at a basic level and can track and note the location of an item at any moment in time, explains Sherman.

  • RFID can work in hostile or hazardous environments, like a paint line in a manufacturing facility. Paint over the RFID tag and it will still broadcast its signal; paint over a bar code and it’s unreadable.

  • RFID tags can carry a lot more information than bar codes.

Over the years, RFID technology has improved. As far as tags are concerned, Motorola’s Warner says, “The market has seen a lower cost per tag with an increased read range.”

On the antenna front, there’s also good news. “Modern antennas are more ‘tunable’ to help integrators create the appropriate capture window and help eliminate spurious reads,” says Bert Moore, director of communications for AIM Global, a trade association representing makers of automatic identification equipment.

Since there are many different types of RFID systems all with different capabilities, ranges and data capacities, Moore recommends seeking professional guidance from a knowledgeable integrator who is familiar with industry standards and is able to set up a system that works in your environment and with your products and business processes.

Voice technology is a hands-free, eyes-free technology that operates in conjunction with an operator. Voice applications are most often found in labor-intensive activities in warehouses, like piece picking, putaway, replenishment and cycle counting.

Voice technology turns computer commands into spoken instructions. Commands from the system and an operator’s feedback create two-way dialogue that navigates through the task at hand, explains John Schriefer, marketing communication manager for Lucas Systems.

A typical voice system includes a mobile computer and a headset.

The mobile computer communicates wirelessly with a management system of records, like a warehouse management system (WMS), manufacturing execution system (MES), or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The operator wears a headset with a microphone to talk back to the mobile computer.

According to Schriefer, there are a number of styles of headsets that are rugged, lightweight and comfortable for an operator to wear, but one of the most important features is the industrial noise-canceling feature on the microphone. “There is nothing worse for a voice system than bad recognition. This feature filters out background noise so the system can clearly understand when the operator is speaking and what’s being said,” he says.

Today’s voice systems are smart. In addition to distinguishing between feedback and background noise, some systems are diverse enough to understand three dozen languages and specific enough to actually recognize each worker’s unique voice patterns, accents and speech idiosyncrasies.

Another way for voice technology to work is a software solution that works over a dial tone. While this strategy is successful in the mobile field service environment, it can also work inside the four walls, explains Brad Wyland, vice president of strategic marketing for Datria Systems. “Workers can pick up a desk phone, cell phone, smart phone or any industrial handheld device and connect to the system with a phone call,” he says.

Regardless of the delivery method, voice communication between the worker and the system can result in a number of improvement gains, including increased picking accuracy and efficiency, reduced picking and replenishment labor, reduced employee training time, and enhanced safety.

About the Author

Lorie King Rogers
Associate Editor

Lorie King Rogers, associate editor, joined Modern in 2009 after working as a freelance writer for the Casebook issue and show daily at tradeshows. A graduate of Emerson College, she has also worked as an editor on Stock Car Racing Magazine.

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About the Author

Lorie King Rogers, associate editor, joined Modern in 2009 after working as a freelance writer for the Casebook issue and show daily at tradeshows. A graduate of Emerson College, she has also worked as an editor on Stock Car Racing Magazine.