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Alvero Kantoormeubelverhuur B.V. has a complex product offering: thousands of different types of furniture, which are sent around Germany and the Netherlands, and are then returned at varying times for servicing and another rental. After more than a decade of exploring RFID-based solutions to bring visibility to this process, the company has adopted a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID system to track its rental furniture as it is received, and again as it is delivered to customers. According to the company, the solution not only makes the loading of rental equipment destined for customers more efficient, but also prevents errors.
The solution was provided by Belgian company Aucxis. It includes Aucxis's R-Connect middleware to capture and interpret tag read information, as well as UHF RFID readers from Impinj readers and antennas supplied by Kathrein. The data captured by R-Connect is forwarded to Alvero's existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Since installing the system more than a year ago, the company reports that it has already achieved a return on its investment based on speedier loading and unloading processes, as well as fewer errors in shipping.
The company transports its rented furniture to customers in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, often delivering an order within 24 hours after an order is placed. According to Bos, there are many ordersapproximately 2,600 are fulfilled daily, on average.
The management of rental equipment can be a monumental task, the company reports. Not only is there a high volume of orders, but the terms vary widelyfrom a single day to three or four years. Alvero wanted to use the technology to better understand when rental furniture shipped out to a specific customer, as well as when it returned. With that data, they can not only prompt appropriate billing, but also understand when equipment has not been returnedand, if it has, the system can trigger inspection, cleaning and repair services to make the furniture ready for the next customer. The single greatest challenge, Bos says, "is keeping the stock up to date."
Since the company was launched, it has offered an automated rental program so that customers could simply place an order online and have it quickly fulfilled. That, however, required that Alvero staff members manually count and check stock levels on a daily basis to ensure they knew which products were available to fill orders.
As early as 2005, the company began seeking a technology-based solution to manage its stock levels. It couldn't use bar-code scanners to register each item as it came and went, Bos says. "Bar codes were not practical fur ustoo time-consuming," she states. So the company looked into RFID. However, the large amount of metal in the furnishings made UHF RFID tags challenging to read. "Because we have a lot of furniture consisting completely of metal, at that time the results of scanning were not 100 percent reliable."
About two years ago, Alvero began installing the system with Aucxis. The two companies applied on-metal UHF RFID tags encoded with a unique ID number to more than 100,000 pieces of furniture. The system was taken live in January of this year.
Aucxis faced several challenges when it came to a deployment of this size, involving the wide variety of furniture that Alvero needs to track, says Rik Heirman, Aucxis's account manager and RFID consultant. For instance, he notes, not everything was composed of metal. In fact, the furniture needed to be tagged whether it consisted of wood, metal or plastic materials. To ensure that tags could be read properly on any piece of furniture, Heirman says, they also needed to be strategically placed where they wouldn't affect the aesthetics of the furniture.
Aucxis conducted testing of tagged items in its own anechoic chamber, then performed onsite testing with Alvero. To better ensure that each tag could be interrogated and properly identified, Heirman says, Aucxis provided "profound logical algorithms in the R-Connect middleware." Bos adds, "We tested most of our products in a single test gate at Alvero. After multiple alterations, we were satisfied with the results."
The RFID solution consists of 12 reader portals installed at the loading docks, to capture the unique ID number of every tag as the rental furniture passes the antennas. At each portal, Aucxis installed four directional antennastwo on the top bar of the portal, as well as one each on either side of the portal. In that way, the R-Connect middleware, residing on a local server, can analyze the antenna transmission and calculate the direction in which the item is movingwhether into or out of the facility.
As an employee prepares to fulfill a shipping order, he or she can use the software to pull up an order. The worker can then begin loading each tagged piece of furniture on the truck assigned to that order. As the tags are interrogated, the reader interprets the data and forwards it to the software, which confirms that the item is appropriate for the order and updates its status as loaded for transport to a customer. Once the equipment is returned, each tagged item passes again through the reader portal and its status is updated once more to indicate that the item has been returned. Thus, following maintenance servicing, it will be available for the next customer.
However, Bos says, the loading docks are just the first phase of an RFID deployment. "We want to use RFID to collect and save data concerning the raw material, use and the repairs," she states, "so we can [view] the circulation of our furniture." By tracking how often each piece was used, and how often it was received and documented in the maintenance department, the company can create a record that it can then share with customers, indicating how much the furniture has been used and what condition it should be in. "That way, we can offer our customers well-documented office furnishings."
In the future, Bos says, the company plans to enable customers to view the data directly at the Alvero website. In that way, they can see what items are available, as well as how much they have been used and serviced, before placing an order. In the meantime, Bos says, the RFID system has already reduced the rate of shipping errors. With the greater visibility into what inventory is on hand, the firm has been able to make fewer last-minute purchases and thereby ensure redundancy of stock to meet expected orders. It has also been able to reduce the amount of extra deliveries that might otherwise be necessary in the event that an error is made.