Finding the silver bulletits not over yet

Visidot brings long-range, multi-reading capability to traceability applications.

Visidots Roger Hecker looks at a system based on digital imaging technology that reportedly is capable of capturing hundreds of standard, paper-label 2D Data Matrix codes in a single read from up to a hundred feet away. Could this be an accurate and significantly less expensive alternative to RFID?

Bar codes are cheap, reliable and standardized. However, they are proximity-dependent and orientation-sensitive, making them painfully slow to process and prone to human error. The promise that RFID would solve these problems has been tempered by accuracy problems, high costs and environmental limitations around metals and liquids. Yes, the performance is improving, but how close are we? Field reports on read-rate accuracy from The Social Security Administration, to Delta Airlines, from European warehouses to Wal-Mart are less than glowing. Results in the field range from a quite respectable 99 per cent for a single item on a pallet, declining to 96 per cent for conveyer belt simulations, falling to an unimpressive 90 per cent on forms reading and bottoming out at an abominable 66 per cent rate when attempting to read all individual cases on a pallet.

What if there was an AIDC solution that combined the best features of legacy bar codes and RFIDbut without their drawbacks? What if the solution had already proven itself in the field with accuracy rates above 99.7 per cent? What if the asset data could be integrated into a comprehensive track and trace solution that provided full supply chain visibility and compliance with the General Food Law, for example? Consider the Visidot solution, a system based on digital imaging technology, capable of capturing hundreds of standard, paper-label 2D Data Matrix codes in a single read from up to a hundred feet away. Its developers have good reason to claim that the Visidot AIDC solution represents a more accurate and significantly less inexpensive alternative to RFID. Combined with its multi-lingual, web-based track and trace suite, the Visidot solution is an ideal combination of high performance AIDC and full asset visibility.

IFCO Systems, one of the worlds leading supplier of reusable plastic containers (RPCs) with more than 260 million rentals per year, was looking for a way to track each of its millions of RPCs throughout its network of over 40 RPC service centres and storage depots all over Europe and North America. The company needed a cost-effective system that could scan an entire pallet of hundreds of crates quickly, with near 100 per cent accuracy.

Using Visidot's AIDC solution, the company initiated a limited scale implementation in a production environment, where they achieved 99.74 per cent system accuracy on over 1.5 million reads. That figure included missed reads resulting from dirty tags, crates that were missing tags, and damaged crates that rendered tags unreadable.

By providing accurate multiple asset data capture that increased asset visibility throughout the facility, Visidot is providing IFCO traceability of labelled crates, real-time views of inventory at depots, views of crate cycle times, accurate records of customer shipments/returns, and the foundation for improving customer request response time.

Levelling the playing fieldby expanding the viewing field
Food and reusable asset tracking are not the only areas where the Visidot solution has proven its mettle. The ability to read accurately assets from long distances and in large fields of view has caught the attention of other industries where asset tracking is also critical. Automotive and aerospace manufacturers have a somewhat unique asset reading dilemma. Due to bulky size and heavy weight, positioning their assets for traditional bar code scanning as they move through the facility is often impractical or even impossible. RFID scanning is also problematic, especially for metal assets and metal-heavy environments.

A major US automobile manufacturer had a unique problem reading bar codes on their truck chassis. Because of the awkward location of the bar code and the construction of the chassis, the forklift driver was unable to get close enough to the bar code, within a reasonable amount of time, to scan it. This was particularly problematic as every time a wrong chassis was placed on the conveyor line, the production line would need to be shut down for half an hour for retooling, at enormous expense.

Using Visidots AIDC system, the company placed a reader on a pole from the ceiling, 40 feet from the area where the forklift raises the chassis to place it on the conveyor. The system constantly monitors an area measuring two feet by two feet, capturing the bar code on the chassis as the forklift moves it to the conveyor. If an incorrect chassis is moved, the system triggers an alarm indicating the need to select a different chassis.

Using an expanded field of view, thanks to Visidots long-range data capturing capabilities (the reader can actually identify and decode hundreds of labels from up to 30-metres away and even at angles of up to 30 degrees), this manufacturer has enjoyed 100 per cent accuracy for chassis placement since installation of the Visidot system, and is evaluating its use in additional production processes.

The margin of victory
RFID total cost of ownership is being pegged at upwards of $10 million for many companies. Imposing this prohibitive outlay on nominal profit margin industries, such as food processors or garment distributors, can be fatal. In addition, for companies that can be hit with chargebacks from retailers for inaccurate shipments, the difference between 98 per cent accuracy and 100 per cent accuracy could be the difference between loss and profit.

Consider the plight of a leading garment distributor that ships out thousands of packages a day to major retail stores, who was getting hit with chargebacks for incomplete orders. They were looking for a way to scan outbound dollies quickly and accurately in order to compare each scan with their customer orders. They had been scanning boxes one-by-one for years, but it was a slow, labour-intensive process that was not accurate enough. Pricey RFID solutions where tags would be slapped on, then thrown away somewhere down the chain, were also not practical.

The company is in process of installing the Visidot solution. Now, the boxes within each order are scanned as they move out the door. The WMS system compares the scanned data with the customer order. If there is a box moving onto a truck that is not listed in the customer order, the system flashes an alarm and indicates on a monitor the physical location of the incorrect asset in the image. The person loading the truck can then remove the item and scan the load again to ensure that only the correct items are there. Only after all of the items in the customer order have passed by the reader is the green light displayed, indicating that the truck has the correct items and can leave the dock.

By ensuring that all of the necessary items, and only those items, are loaded on each truck, the company is saving labour and time and significantly reducing chargeback costs. This company expects an ROI for the Visidot AIDC system within three months. Furthermore, because the real-time data is being integrated with EDI systems, they are enhancing their relationships with customers by providing them full visibility of orders.

Crossing the finish line
With costs and frustrations running high, patience wearing thin and time running out, the clock is inexorably clicking towards compliance zero hour. Or is it? In fact as of this writing Wal-Mart was indeed softening some of its original rigid compliance demands in light of increasing supplier complaints. Even if you must comply to complete this lap, the race is far from over.

While nobody is suggesting totally derailing the RFID juggernaut, slowing it down a bit might be prudent. For despite all the RFID praise weve heard, and all the glory it might one day deserve, there is enough opposing evidence to suggest that it might not earn star status for several more years. In fact, Jeff Woods, a leading Gartner research analyst, in his recently released report titled "Prepare for Disillusionment with RFID, predicts that by 2007, at least 50 per cent of RFID projects will fail. And this, only after a lot of companies will burn through plenty of money testing the new technology.

Even regarding the tags themselves, RFID has a tough time making the qualifying rounds. "You still have the problem of high tag-mortality rates," says Gartners Woods, who estimates that as many as 30 per cent of all tags fail to function properly. Whereas 2D Data Matrix labels have proven to be as reliable as their trusty 1D bar code predecessors.

One other thing is for certain, choosing Visidot can earn you that coveted ROI wreath quickly, since the 2D Data Matrix codes can be printed with your existing bar code labels.

RFID certainly is promisingfor the future. But many companies need a proven, accurate, low cost AIDC solution that works today. For such companies, there is Visidot.

Roger Hecker is the product marketing manager for ImageID Ltd., a global leader in image recognition technologies and providers of the Visidot multiple-asset AIDC solution.

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