How Automation and Bluetooth Help With Order and Material Traceability

Order and material traceability are important in any kind of industrial space. In the past, tracking focused on packages being shipped to a customer, but internal tracking is just as important. Improving traceability helps your business in many ways. Traditional systems involve a lot of paperwork and checklists and can be an extremely time-consuming part of a worker’s day. End-to-end traceability is a goal of many companies but has historically proved hard to fulfill. Today, however, new ways to improve traceability are beginning to emerge in the business world. New technology is starting to fill this gap with automated systems that use RFID or Bluetooth chips to trace parts and supplies as well as warehouse equipment. Bluetooth chips have the advantage of a longer range. Click here to download our ‘What Lean Manufacturing Means in the Age of IoT’ white paper


What are the benefits of Automated Systems?

There are a number of benefits of these new automated systems that can help improve traceability:

  • Increased speed and accuracy. With Bluetooth technology you have a real-time overview of each of your locations, knowing where in a warehouse or on the production line your order or asset is. You can then plan scheduling better, increase the speed of production, and with the proper AI tools you gain data insight that improves decision making in everything from resource planning to quality control to sales.
  • Visibility and transparency. Because all of the data is stored in real time, anyone in the company can look at it and follow or locate anything in the process. Software can be used to analyze the data and provide insights to management that can help them with everything from helping warehouse employees plan a better route to ensuring that stocking levels are appropriate.
  • End-to-end traceability. With paper methods, it is nearly impossible to ensure full, end-to-end traceability of materials and orders. With it, then you can ensure that items are scanned in and out at every stage, and can tell customers exactly where their order is at any given time. For business to business, there’s often a demand for a finer tracking than just “in the warehouse” “shipped” and “out for delivery.” These systems can also help you spot stalled orders before you receive a complaint (or, worse, get called out on social media over delayed or missing orders). You can also trace each part of the manufacturing process so you can establish where problems are and where methods can be improved.
  • It makes it easier to track individual parts and components. Modern Bluetooth tags are extremely small and light and can be applied to everything from a small box of washers to warehouse forklifts. You can also get wearable tags to monitor employee movements, for both safety and efficiency. (For example, wearable tags can alert the worker if they are too close to the line or if there is a forklift behind that stack of pallets, and can help you establish that everyone has left the building in an emergency.
  • Information critical to your business is available immediately rather than only when somebody manually types it into an office computer. This allows for real-time monitoring and AI-generated reports. You will spot a production or warehouse problem right away and have the data you need to locate and fix the issue.
  • Reduced human error. The fewer manual inputs that have to be made, the fewer chances for mistakes. Handwritten paperwork is the worst, with employees often failing to read each other’s handwriting, but even computerized systems result in typos and other errors. Automated tracking also eliminates errors made when an employee simply forgets to mark something in the system. This also frees up employees for more important tasks and reduces time wasted manually tracking assets.

Knowing how to improve traceability allows companies to improve putting-away and picking processes and greatly enhances the recall process. However, the biggest advantage is the large amount of data generated that allows a company to know exactly how well their processes are working and where improvements can be made. This does require a lot of data processing, but technology has now reached the point where AI can handle this easily.

How Can Bluetooth Systems Help Improve Traceability?

Over the past few years, the use of RFID tagging has expanded beyond the automotive industry and across a variety of use cases. It became popular early in the healthcare and aerospace industries. High-frequency RFID was most commonly used, but UHF tagging is starting to come into use because those chips tend to be smaller and cheaper. Bluetooth has a high advantage for certain applications in that it has a longer range. Bluetooth is used for active tagging, although the expense of the beacons means it’s generally used on assets. However, newer beacon and tag systems are now cheaper than active RFID tagging. Essentially, Bluetooth beacons are used to create a grid and tags track the position of assets and objects within the grid. Bluetooth Low Energy tags are cheaper and can be used to track parts and orders. For example, each pallet in the warehouse can be tagged and the system will record what was put on the pallet and where that pallet needs to go. The order can then be tracked onto the truck, and GPS tracking used to track the vehicle all the way to delivery. Some companies still prefer to use RFID tags for orders because those tags are so cheap there is no need to worry about tag retrieval. For most purposes, though, the higher cost of the Bluetooth tags is overcome by the much lower cost of readers (in many cases employees can simply use their phones). The biggest advantage of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) technology is an increased range. Reading an RFID tag requires that you bring a scanner close to the tag, which is time-consuming. This makes it a much better system for real-time tracking, as the gridded beacons can read the tags automatically and constantly without any input from employees. Tags can be used to track the movement of assets (including employees) through the warehouse constantly, and the higher range means they can also be used outside in loading areas and parking lots. However, real-time tracking systems also require AI support. Thus, these systems are linked to AI software designed to analyze real-time data and, for example, highlight bottlenecks where a production or shipping process is causing the entire system to slow down. AI support eliminates the time spent analyzing data and reduces that managers have to spend studying trends so they can work out how to improve the process and give employees better support and knowledge. Simon is one such AI tool and it offers the following features (among others):

  • Search & Find. Simon AI can track the location of e.g. forklifts within the warehouse and immediate area and display them in real-time on a map. The map can also be used to display assets, so you can use the system to ensure that forklift operators go to the right part of the warehouse and stop when they find a particular asset. Pallets and other assets can show blinking LEDs that visually tell the employee where the asset is and reduce search time considerably.
  • Asset Inventory. You can get a real-time snapshot of the location of all assets, filtered by type. The system can be programmed to notify you if an asset is not seen for an extended period of time. You can also check to see if an asset has moved, which can help you spot whether an order has been left on a pallet – ideally before the recipient calls to complain. You can set this period to a different number of days if needed. You can also cross-reference asset and employee location to monitor productivity and discourage employee theft.
  • Order & Material Traceability. Simon can provide reports on how long a tagged item stays in each zone. You can use this to track all orders or production, or to “spot check” to get an impression of where slowdowns are. If things go out of sequence, the AI can notify you right away. This can help you improve your processes, catch problems before they grow, and build a better understanding of what is really happening in your factory or warehouse rather than what you think is happening or what protocols say. You can establish where a protocol is not being followed, work with employees to establish why, and improve both procedures and compliance.

AI systems can learn the patterns of your workplace and alert you when something is out of place. Simon can integrate with third-party applications including ERP and human resource systems to provide data to everyone in the company who needs it. Alerts can be sent via email or an employee’s phone. Bear in mind that although ERP and MRP systems are amazing, they still require manual inputs and some systems still involve physical paperwork. With Simon, everything is automated and all data is generated through sensor and location data. MRP systems are not inherently granular, automatic, or real-time, but they can be integrated with the data provided by Simon for a complete solution. If you are looking for a real-time tracking system to improve traceability, reduce time wasted by employees, and offer better monitoring of processes, then contact us to schedule a demo of our Simon AI. With Simon and Bluetooth Low Energy tagging you can build a system that will help you meet the standards of order and material traceability your company and your customers expect.

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