When my kids were younger they used to make some win­ter money by shov­el­ing snow. They’d march to the garage, pil­lage my shov­els and work their way down the road clear­ing dri­ve­ways. As the day pro­gressed they invari­ably met with other entre­pre­neurs and set­tled own­er­ship of the untouched dri­ves with an impromptu snow­ball fight.

Tools tossed to the side, for­got­ten, they hurled balls of frozen delight until Vic­tory was secured or Moms recalled their troops for dry clothes and lunch. In the post bat­tle con­fu­sion of reclaim­ing tools, my gang was always first to leave the field, cer­tain of their equip­ment. Their secret: ugly shovels.

Before the first snow, I spray painted the blades pur­ple and the han­dles orange; sim­ple, cost effec­tive asset con­trol, well suited for the item, its use and envi­ron­ment. I’ve used sim­i­lar strate­gies with var­ied con­trols to man­age ware­house assets. Here are some of the sys­tems I’ve used.

One oper­a­tion was a full line Gro­cer, ship­ping full cases and sin­gle units packed in totes on a mix­ture of plas­tic and wooden pal­lets. The Cus­tomers wanted plas­tic pal­lets for dis­play on the sell­ing floor and I needed to get the plas­tic totes and pal­lets back to the ware­house for reuse. Data col­lec­tion was sim­ple; the Loader indi­cated pal­let type (white, CHEP or plas­tic) as he scanned and loaded the pal­let on the truck. Totes were counted as he scanned them, cre­at­ing the load­ing man­i­fest. A line item for each was added to the Customer’s invoice.

At the end of the month we’d bill the Cus­tomer for each plas­tic pal­let or tote that had not been returned. We had a ‘float’ fig­ure for each Cus­tomer that allowed for an asset carry over from month to month based on ship­ping vol­ume. This plan worked well and was fully auto­mated. The cost of the pro­gram (an add on appli­ca­tion to the exist­ing Ship­ping func­tion) suited the assets cov­ered, but it only tracked the total num­ber of pal­lets and totes, not the spe­cific ones. We han­dled it dif­fer­ently at a ready– to-wear distributor.

As a gar­ment dis­trib­u­tor, we used a blend of con­tract and com­mon car­riage for deliv­ery. Coats and dresses were shipped on hang­ers, loaded in a rolling bin. Each bin was RFID tagged and had a bar code label which was assigned to a Cus­tomer invoice. The bar code was scanned as the gar­ments were hung in the bin. When the bin was full, it was sealed and rolled from the sort­ing room to ship­ping where the bar code was scanned, telling the loader which truck to load, and the tag was read, assign­ing the bin to the invoice and Cus­tomer, who was now respon­si­ble for it.

Each bin cost sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars, but pro­tected thou­sands of dol­lars of inven­tory from loss or dam­age on the road. The bins were sent back to the ware­house with returns and passed through another RFID reader releas­ing it from the Cus­tomers queue and clos­ing the ship­ping loop. Cus­tomers were assured of order integrity in tran­sit and Ship­ping knew where their bins were and billed accord­ingly. At a fresh food pro­ducer we com­bined the bin and the tote strate­gies to good effect.

Prod­ucts were packed in sin­gle sku trays which were stacked, counted and inven­to­ried with a bar code scan before mov­ing on to ship­ping. The sin­gle sku stack was dis­trib­uted; using a Speech enabled mobile ter­mi­nal, onto RFID tagged rolling carts. These carts were labeled and assigned to indi­vid­ual Cus­tomers, and each tray was added to the Customer’s invoice by a sec­ond bar code scan, account­ing for both the tray and the prod­uct it held.

When a cart was full, the stacker scanned the Cus­tomer label, spoke the tray count and was told which truck to load. He then rolled through a por­tal which read the RFID tag assign­ing the tray count and spe­cific cart to the invoice. As carts and tray were returned to the plant an unloader spoke the count of the inbound trays to the sys­tem as he passed through the receiv­ing RFID por­tal. This relieved the Cus­tomer of the tray quan­tity and indi­vid­ual carts. The low cost and high num­ber of trays cou­pled with the high value of the carts made this mix of tech­nolo­gies a fine track­ing solu­tion and gave real time vis­i­bil­ity to the floor.

The appro­pri­ate use of RFID and bar codes can make asset track­ing cost effec­tive and pro­vide insight to ship­ping oper­a­tions. And it’s a nice upgrade from spray paint and ugly shovels.

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