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Article
The Value of Dynamic Visual Tags

Recent developments in technology have enabled the integration of e-paper with RFID tags to create dynamic visual tags. This is a powerful combination, especially for cyclic processes.


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Omni-ID recently announced the launch of dynamic visual tags that combine e-paper with RFID tags. These devices can display scannable bar codes, as well as dynamically changing text and graphics. They can also be read by RFID readers, with all the advantage of non-line-of-sight and multiple, simultaneous reads. This combination of display and tag is especially useful for cyclic processes with defined, repeating steps. A definition and examples of cyclic processes can be found in our Omni-ID announcement article. A common way of managing these cyclic processes is to print a unique barcode label/card for each tracked item for each cycle.

Advantages of Dynamic Visual Tags

The initial hard ROI in many cases is the simple savings on paper and ink from printing labels.1 These savings have been shown to pay for the system in under 18 months for some customers.2 In this case, the changes to processes can be almost nothing—even continuing to use the same existing software program to print the label, with Omni-ID’s solution simply installed as a new print driver. This is important because manufacturers are notoriously risk-adverse and don’t want to change their processes willy-nilly—especially the core manufacturing processes that they have honed over the years. They can even keep using the existing kanban cards at first, just putting the new tags next to them, until they are sure that the new system works.

Putaway Instructions / Ensuring 100% Read Rates

The real power and value of the visual display is in its dynamic nature and ability to change as it moves through the cycle. For example, when a truckload full of totes on pallets is received, each pallet is driven past an RFID reader which reads and automatically receives all of the totes. In addition, it can send a message to the visual tag on each tote, changing its display to contain the putaway instructions. The warehouse worker then knows exactly where to put each tote. Furthermore, if for whatever reason, a tote was not read by the system, it will be immediately apparent to the worker because there will be no putaway location displayed on the label. They can then read the tag on that tote with either an RFID reader or a handheld barcode reader, which enters the data for those items into the receiving system. Now the system will update the display with the putaway instructions. This ensures 100% read rates, something a regular RFID system cannot do. You are getting the automation advantages of RFID (ability to read an entire pallet just by driving it by a reader, without having to scan each item), combined with the read confirmation advantages of barcode (feedback to operator that each item has been successfully scanned).

Dynamic Instructions on the Plant Floor and Other Settings

The concept of dynamic instructions on the label can be very useful in manufacturing and other environments. A different set of instructions can be presented at each workstation as the item goes through the various stages of assembly. This is especially useful in production lines where each unit is customized—like cars that may have different specific sets of accessories, or refrigerators that may have a left vs. right door and/or specific options installed. The instructions can include routing, telling the workers which station the item should go to next. Further, the tag could display the history of the item/contents if needed, as a double check that all the process steps had been taken or to see what conditions occurred in previous steps.

Instructions can be useful in many other settings as well. A wheel chair in a hospital could be tagged with the name of the patient, displaying to the orderly where to take them next and any special instructions specific to that patient. Further, using the RFID tag, an alarm can be triggered if they start going to the wrong location or into a room that has not been sterilized yet.

Dynamic Quality Hold

This technology also can make it much easier to place items on quality hold within a manufacturing plant. Normally if a quality issue is discovered in a batch, it can be a big exercise to run around trying to locate all the affected parts and making sure they are not used. With a visual tagging system, it is a simple matter of sending new instructions to all totes containing the affected parts so that the display changes to something like “DO NOT USE.”

Trials and Target Customers

Omni-ID currently has a couple of trials going on and is working with several dozen customers and prospects at various stages. They are targeting large OEM manufacturers that sit at the top of the supply chain. Each OEM has hundreds of tier one suppliers. The OEM owns the tote or other RTI, which is often custom-designed to fit their product or process—such as the racks that are custom-designed to carry a particular transmission, axle assembly, fenders, or other large parts for an automotive manufacturer. Suppliers will start to see these totes or other RTIs with the visual display tags flowing through their own facilities and this may inspire them to take advantage of this technology for their own use as well.

Pay-as-You-Go Approach Possible

Some people have expressed interest in a leasing or pay-per-print model. Omni-ID has designed their system and all the components to be able to measure and charge on a per-print or per-transaction basis. This pricing model reduces capital expenses and risks for the customer and provides a very straightforward value proposition for them. If the manufacturer’s cost-per-print can be cut in half with minimal disruption, by implementing the Omni-ID solution, that could be an easy, low-risk business case to make.

Conclusion

The combination of e-paper and RFID to create dynamic visual tags was not commercially feasible just 2-3 years ago. This is a significant development for the industry that could prove to have major impact. ________________________________________________

1 Eliminating the use of paper and ink also has environmental benefits, making this a ‘green’ solution as well. -- Return to article text above
2 The example that Omni-ID gave was an automotive assembly plant they have been working with. This plant handles 900,000 totes, which consume 120,000 cards daily. The annual cost for paper and ink for the 36M labels they print each year is over $9M.  The cost of a visual tagging system is $12.5M in capital investment, making a 16 month breakeven ROI just on these direct printing costs. -- Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.




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