Best Practices

Category: Best Practices

The problem with barcodes for factory and warehouse tracking

Warehouse worker scanning barcodes on boxes in a large warehouse
Warehouse worker scanning barcodes on boxes in a large warehouse

Barcodes are ubiquitous in the modern world, appearing on everything from books to vehicles. They are also ubiquitous in manufacturing for identifying and tracking parts, components, bins, tools, and finished products on the plant floor and into the supply chain.

There’s a big limitation with barcodes, however: They’re prone to error and encounter other difficulties in high-volume manufacturing settings.

Systems integrator Polytron described some of them at the IoT for Manufacturing workshop at Georgia Tech:

  • Orientation may prevent reading of barcodes
  • A barcode reader can only read one barcode at a time
  • Barcodes have to be reprinted when information changes
  • Physical damage to barcodes is common in manufacturing, through abrasion or other wear and tear
  • Barcodes can’t be automatically read in certain situations

Polytron’s Lead System Architect Jim Flagg was describing serial number barcodes at a plant making filters, but it’s easy to see how other types of barcodes, from 2D to UPC, might be affected by some of the issues described above.

The replacement described by Polytron involved RFID — a more efficient tracking of product through manufacturing, distribution, and the end customer’s facility.

An IoT systems integrator’s approach to IoT pilots

One of the most interesting presentations at the IoT for Manufacturing workshop at Georgia Tech was from Polytron, a systems integrator specializing in manufacturing. While the focus of the presentation was the resurgence of RFID on the shop floor, there were several other takeaways shared by the company concerning planning IoT deployments for clients. And, it offers hope for those who are alarmed by the IoT “pilot purgatory” trend pervasive throughout industry.

Polytron IoT systems integrator presentation IoTfM18

Polytron’s Richard W. Phillips, director of smart manufacturing, said that one of the first steps for the systems integrator when brought into an IoT engagement involves asking clients to identify business drivers. When it comes to IoT pilots, the company wants to identify ROI opportunities.

Fortunately, there are lots of low-hanging fruit – typically Polytron and the client might discuss 10 or 20 potential projects, which could be anything from setting up alerts to going paperless for some process on the plant floor. The team will then get to work on one pilot before considering scaling or expanding to other areas.

Phillips said, “Ideally, we minimize the number of technologies without giving up functionality,” and consider a 10-year timeframe for the implementation. He added that when it comes to new projects, it’s not just a matter of figuring out the best technology. “We try to understand impact of new technologies on people and processes,” he said. “Will workers be motivated?”

Another Polytron employee, Lead System Architect Jim Flagg, described a case study involving a beverage manufacturer seeking to launch a new product line. Even something that sounds simple (a solution to trace ingredients in a drink containing fruit and vegetable juice from farm to consumer) can get very complex from an IoT manufacturing perspective. Factors that have to be considered include:

  • Tracking ingredients with different expiry dates
  • Batching and packaging
  • Pasteurization
  • Handling recalls
  • Recipe management
  • Data collection for FDA compliance.

Polytron said the traceability solution that the client ended up using involved location and data tracking using RFID tags on palettes of vegetables moving around the plant, along with RFID labels on cases of bottles leaving the facility.