The power generation division of a multinational conglomerate struggled for years to develop a more efficient and accurate system for locating and tracking utility equipment at one of its outdoor storage yards. AbeTech and Zebra teamed up and delivered a radio frequency identification (RFID) solution that automates asset tracking and locating, allowing the company to maintain accurate inventory and quickly locate equipment whenever it’s needed.
The company was storing transformers and other power generation equipment and assets at a 7.5-acre outdoor facility. It used barcodes in other areas of its business, but it couldn’t use them in its storage yard due to a lack of infrastructure to support barcoding and scanning.
This meant the company had to manually identify, locate and track equipment and assets, which required a full-day effort by two workers every two weeks. Over the course of a year, this amounted to 200 hours of manual inventory searching, not counting additional hours when emergencies or disasters might require immediate searches outside the normal schedule.
Moreover, inventory locations and counts were obsolete soon after every manual inventory count, especially since the company had to move assets frequently to make room for new equipment.
Some of the company’s utility and power projects were planned as far as 9 months in advance, so this meant inventory was frequently moved multiple times before a project would actually begin. As a result, the company was often unable to locate equipment and assets quickly and sometimes not at all.
This was particularly troublesome for emergency and disaster response, where the ability to immediately locate and retrieve assets is critical. The local area was prone to severe storms and weather, ratcheting up the pressure to be better prepared when power equipment needed to be replaced in a hurry.
In grappling with these issues, the company had already realized that RFID technology was the ideal solution due to its ability to locate and track inventory wirelessly and remotely. But the company had previously investigated and trialed different combinations of RFID tags, labels and readers, only to find its systems deficient.
That’s when the company turned to AbeTech, one of North America’s leading experts in RFID system design and deployment, to take on the challenge.
AbeTech quickly assessed the problem as well as the issues the company was struggling with, and it proposed a prompt solution.
AbeTech would provide leadership, consultation and guidance to help the company design and implement a new RFID system to replace the previous efforts. It would also bring in RFID hardware from its partners at Zebra Technologies to ensure that inventory would be located and tracked accurately and reliably, without the problems the company had been encountering in its previous attempts.
As part of the process, AbeTech RFID experts specified a hybrid fixed/mobile RFID system using Zebra’s ZT410 RFID tag and label printer as well as Zebra’s FX9600 fixed RFID readers.
The Zebra printer is an industrial-grade device that would print RFID tags and labels that are attached or adhered to each item or piece of equipment the company needs to track. Zebra’s FX9600 RFID readers would be used as part of an antenna array that detects, reads and identifies tagged assets automatically and remotely, whenever they’re in range of the readers.
Typically, with a fixed RFID system, assets are tracked as they move past a fixed reader placed above a doorway, or in a warehouse aisle, or in another strategic location. But since the equipment storage yard was an outdoor environment with a dynamic exterior landscape, AbeTech designed the system and RFID antenna array to be fixed to a fork truck and manually moved throughout the yard. This would allow the antenna array and readers to work together to read all RFID tags and take inventory.
Using Zebra’s RFID technologies, the utility company was also able to design a system to collect data offline and conduct batch inventory updates whenever its wireless network is available. This hedges against events that might threaten data collection and transmission, such as a temporary power outage, network outage, or accident that prevents network access. The RFID reader captures the data, stores it, and transmits it when the network is available.
After partnering with AbeTech and Zebra, the power generation company was able to get a successful RFID system designed, tested, and validated in less than 60 days. AbeTech worked closely with the company’s engineers and stakeholders to job shadow the workers who were conducting inventory, identify RFID tag and locating requirements, and then design and test a custom solution.
The company has since deployed this RFID system, including a script it wrote to collect tag data and update its inventory database. Now, instead of two workers conducting bi-weekly full-day manual inventories that were soon obsolete, one worker simply drives a fork truck around the yard for one hour to locate, count, and track every asset.
The company now conducts two of these “drive-by” inventories each day, ensuring that it always knows where its assets are located in the yard. Now the company is easily able to locate and retrieve any asset whenever it’s needed, without having to worry about whether it’s been moved. AbeTech also continues to work with the company on continuous improvement to the RFID system, to ensure the best possible results.
The system has yielded additional benefits as well, as AbeTech has worked with the company to improve its upstream inventory visibility by creating an RFID compliance program for its suppliers and vendors.
The program indicates what the company’s inventory data set should look like and how supplier RFID tags and labels should be encoded and printed to match that standard. AbeTech provided a turnkey solution including a supplier mandate and requirements, so suppliers can properly tag and label shipments bound for the company.
AbeTech works closely with these suppliers, providing direct support and guidance to help them ensure compliance with the power company’s RFID standard and processes. This will go a long way toward unlocking the many benefits of automated inventory tracking for the power company’s inbound assets, parts, and components—not just for inventory that’s already stored in its yard.