The supply chain for garments has to be viewed as one of the most complex supply chains in existence. Variety, seasonality, sizes, colours, different handling systems, boxed, hanging, etc. The advent of bar coding and bar code readers together with modern inventory management systems and modern garment materials handling techniques appeared to have provided all the efficiencies that could be derived from this supply chain. Up until a few months ago, that statement was very true. RFID "Tags" have been in existence for a number of years however, their size and cost have limited their application to the garment industry. Until now. A new generation of RFID tags has been developed; opening a plethora of applications, limited only by the lateral thought capability of the system engineers. Smart Labels as they are generically known, have addressed the size and cost issues. The tags have been designed from the outset to be inexpensive, re-usable (up to 100,000 re-writes per label), and in a virtually flat, label format.

Battery free and with the antenna for the RF contained as part of the area of the label, the application of the label can be undertaken in exactly the same manner as a normal sticky label.

Different type of antenna and chip used in the label production process.

However, the difference to a single use label is that this label can be re-used repeatedly, for different products and product groups. Unlike bar codes, they do not require line-of-sight optical reading. As long as the label is not masked by metal, it can be read as long as the reader is in the proximity of the label. However it can be read if affixed to a metal object as long as it is visible. Unlike bar codes, where every read is a unique action for the single product or item, multiple smart labels can be read/written within the Reader's RF field. Dependent upon the size and nature of the antenna this can vary from 12cm to 2 metres.

State of the art hand-held reader/writer.

Tests have shown that as many as 30 (thirty) reads per second can be made using static or hand-held antenna. Each read being of a unique code.

As stated before, the labels can be written to again and again, in addition to having their own unique, factory set ID. This is ideal for storing small, but item specific information, especially when this may change during a number of processes.

Unlike bar code labels that can easily be corrupted through repeated handling or adverse conditions, the smart label is impervious to dirt, water and contaminants and has been proved able to operate at extremes of temperatures.

One application has been to identify the renter of hire clothes including the time taken out, the time due back, the renter's name and address with the smart label being incorporated into the clothing. When read immediately after passing through the steam clean operation for the returned garments, when they were too hot to manually handle, the reader and the labels provided a 100% (one hundred per cent) read.

How many bar code labels could profess to achieve the same? How can the garment industry benefit from the utilisation of smart labels? The following case study is one of the many applications.

Case Study

A major retailer operates with a regional distribution system, accumulating garments at various points around the UK, with which twenty-four hour store replenishment and supply is actioned.

One of the services offered to the customers is the ability to order items that are not in stock at the store of their choice. These orders are sent to the Distribution Centre (DC) and the DC responds by picking the items and sending them as part of the normal stock replenishment delivery but as a separately controlled supply chain.

The store logs the receipt of the products into the store system, matches the items to the outstanding orders, the customer collects the item, and everyone is satisfied.

That is what is supposed to happen. However, the system fails when the store does not scan each item and record the receipt of the item into the customer order system. The customer order system reports a shortfall against the orders and the DC management get a verbal beating for something that is totally beyond their control.

Enter the solution, in the form of smart labels. Using these labels and combining them with a simple software solution, the problem has been solved. Well, at least the blame for the shortfall can be correctly allocated.

The customer orders are received, the items are picked, hand scanned, and smart labels for each garment (recording the UPC of the item and the time) are generated, these labels are stuck onto the respective garment, and the system produces a printed manifest detailing the items. A separate smart label is produced which identifies the manifest number. This label is attached to the total order either on the plastic tote box or, on the hanging garment rail. When the customer order items are received at the store. The antenna (which is attached to a stand alone PC) is passed across each mode of carrying (tote box or rail), and the system produces a store manifest that is compared to the DC manifest that accompanies the delivery. The store manifest details the UPC number, the time of the read, the printed bar code for the UPC and the date of the read. The bar codes are then scanned and the item is updated to the customer order system. End of problem.

Simple, easy to use, and with the re-usability of the smart labels, a low cost solution. Whilst the labels might cost 90p (ninety pence) each, the fact that they can be re-used for a multiplicity of applications, provides a low trip cost or, usage cost. Normal bar code labels cost approximately 0.33 pence each. The smart label has to be re-used 270 times for break-even (in label cost terms) to be achieved. This comparative does not take any consideration of the extra efficiency and accuracy introduced by their application.

The Future

Many applications can be created for the utilisation of smart labelling. The next segment outlines a few of the opportunities both within and outside of the garment industry.

  • Tracking Items : such as roll cages, dollies, plastic tote boxes, pallets, within any supply chain, can be tracked at every stage of the handling process and the main databases made aware of where and how the items are being handled. If a roll cage with a unique identified in the form of a smart label has been allocated a specific number of mixed products to a specific load, through a specific loading bay, then any digression from this route can be instantly identified with automatic reading of the smart label. This will increase the accuracy of the loading of trailers. One retailer is quoted as justifying the introduction of smart labels and the necessary equipment, onto its roll cages on a single year payback - just by reducing the loading error rate.

  • Asset Tracking : using the smart labels to confirm the whereabouts of any pallet, plastic tote box, roll cage, mobile infrastructure, containers.

  • Automation : As an alternative to bar codes, smart labels can be use on tote bins or crates to control automated conveyor/sortation systems. The smart labels will be impervious to dirt and cleaning processes, unlike current barcode labels.

  • Stock Transfers : where smart labels are affixed to garments, and when they are transferred from the back stock room of the store onto the sales floor. A static scanner could be installed in the corridor between the stock room and the sales floor that reads all the garments being carried past it. It is irrelevant how many garments are carried at each time as long as they pass in proximity to the antenna. In this manner, the store stock controller will then know precisely how many of the items of a garment are still in the back store area.

  • Distribution Centre Efficiencies : The whole scenario of handling hanging and boxed garments through a distribution centre revolves around the application of labour. In one national retailer, the average DC handles some 40,000 items per day. Irrespective of whether the garment is delivered to the DC in boxes or on a hanging rail, each item has to be separately scanned in order that it can be added to the stock.

    If smart labels were to be used, the scan and read could be undertaken automatically without any manual intervention. As stated before, at the rate of 30 items per second, as long as the items passed within the prescribed proximity of the static antenna.

    Given that the current bar code scanning method involves the manual presentation of the hand held scanner to the bar code, after it has been found, this operation can take in excess of 3 seconds per item. This is 90 times slower than using smart labels.

    At 40,000 single items per day, the total operational time for manual bar code scanning is 33 hours. Using smart labels and a powerful static scanner, the same operation could be achieved in 25 minutes. At £7 per hour labour cost, the daily difference in cost would be £228 or, £83,220 per annum.

  • Perpetual Inventory : a minimal requirement for ensuring accuracy of stock accounting in a DC or warehouse environment.

    Each pallet could have a smart label attached to it, with its own unique code, that is recorded in the warehouse database, together with a record of the products held on the pallet for the particular day. A reach truck could have a reader and antenna attached to its forks that is moved down the aisles, with the units being raised to each pallets level.

    The RF ability of the antenna and scanner would then record the pallet position code and the relevent pallet in it. The time taken to accurately check the stock, being only limited by the one-way travel time of the reach truck.

    When a pallet has been moved to a picking position, as the smart label can be altered by the user on the fly. As product is picked, the amount on the pallet can be adjusted by the read/write hand held terminal and the label will then reflect the correct amount on the pallet.

  • Home Shopping : One major UK retailer is currently evaluating the use of smart labels to monitor the correct assembly of plastic tote boxes for each of the consumer orders, from the various parts of the picking centre. After assembly in the marshalling area, they will then perform the function of ensuring that the correct tote boxes are loaded in the correct delivery vehicle. The individual tote box IDs for the load will then be input to the hand held tracking terminal that the driver is responsible for, and delivery confirmed on the same unit at the time of delivery. Total tracking and control at all aspects of the process.

Many more situations can be quoted. As stated earlier, the application of smart labels is only restricted by the amount of lateral thought process applied by the systems engineer.

The generic title of Smart labels is truly earned.

Produced by Andrew Hayman, Director, Ryder Strategies Limited
With thanks to the contributions made by Terry Homersham of Tibbett & Britten, Viv Bradshaw of Microlise Systems Integration