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Mark Rushton, UK marketing manager at Harting Ltd, explains how RFDI technology is helping the company’s European Distribution Centre set new standards in logistics.

In the summer of 2019, Harting opened its new European Distribution Centre (EDC) near its head office in Espelkamp. With around 300 pallet storage locations, 13 loading gates and up to ten thousand shipments being sent out per day, the ability to identify and locate components and track goods across the facility were a key concern. In order to fully digitise processes and optimise the flow of goods, Harting installed its own range of RFID (radio-frequency identification) hardware and middleware within the facility. 

RFID allows you to digitally monitor the physical location of items and assets. It is extremely flexible and can be used in a variety of environments. For example, it can be employed in hospitals to track, locate and digitally update the sterilisation history of medical equipment; and within train maintenance and servicing depots, to identify individual components such as axles or wheels. 

A key benefit of using RFID is that, unlike barcodes, you do not need direct line of sight to read the transponder. It’s also possible to get information and data from multiple tags at once, with the high-speed technology allowing you to read up to 300 tags per second. They’re also able to cope with harsh, industrial environments and can endure wide temperature variations, high humidity and continue to be readable in dirty environments where the tag may become coated in oil and grease.

Another huge advantage of an RFID system is the improved security it offers. The risk of counterfeiting and forgery is reduced massively because transponders can be encrypted and password protected.

Within the EDC, Harting utilises RFID technology to reduce delivery errors and make distribution as efficient as possible. As goods arrive, a sophisticated software system automatically assigns pallets a designated space. These pallets are then equipped with RFID transponders, which allow them to be tracked to ensure the most efficient flow path through the warehouse. Correspondingly, goods-moving equipment and forklifts are equipped with UHF RFID readers, which can then communicate with and read the transponders attached to the pallets. 

During loading and delivery, the goods are assigned a unique identifier, which is written onto the rewritable transponders. When the forklift operator receives an order via their terminal, the RFID technology automatically checks and determines whether the pallet matches the order. In addition, the storage location is also identified by RFID transponders embedded in the floor, meaning the forklift driver is immediately alerted if pallets are transported to the wrong storage locations. This helps to improve efficiencies and speed up the distribution process.

A similar system is used to ensure the loading of goods onto lorries is as well organised and cost-effective as possible. The loading ramp has transponders embedded in the floor, which automatically check that the goods on the pallet tally exactly with the transport order. This ensures that goods are loaded onto the correct truck, helping to eliminate incorrect deliveries. Booking processes are carried out automatically, which saves additional time and increases efficiency.

One of the biggest technical challenges in implementing these RFID applications within the Harting logistics centre, was ensuring reliable identification of both components and the storage bins. Due to the surrounding logistical environment, which contains objects which can reflect, block or absorb signals, it was important to select the correct hardware and software. Rather than the classic RFID gate solution, Harting opted to install local, spatially well-defined reading zones, which eliminate the accidental misidentification of pallets or storage areas and means the middleware does not need to filter out misreads.  

The technological advancements even extend to outside the building; as drivers enter the premises, their vehicle is immediately identified by the RFID system and the barrier raised to allow entry.

As well as RFID, the EDC is equipped with other ultra-modern intralogistics solutions which are used in different areas. The flow of goods through the distribution centre is completely paperless and energy and machine data is recorded and evaluated by edge computing devices, which is then used for preventative maintenance. 

In the future, it is hoped that artificial intelligence will further develop and improve logistics technology in the EDC. For example, autonomous route optimisation of automatic guided vehicles (AGV) and intelligent palletising solutions for shipped items of different sizes and weights are all being considered as we move further towards an automated digital future.