RFID Technology Helps Automakers Track Inventory

T&W Operations puts radio frequency ID to work to simplify the inventory control process.

Rick and Laura Head’s T&W Operations helps automakers track inventory.

Rick Head worked in the automotive industry for 40 years before he and his wife, Laura Head, purchased T&W Operations
in 2018. 

The Huntsville-based company had been operating as a supplier to the federal government since 2004, but the Heads saw opportunities for T&W’s technology in the automotive industry, among other industries. 

T&W got its start supplying logistics software for the Iraqi war effort. By 2016, had begun supporting U.S. Army warehouses with inventory management systems. Those systems are based on radio frequency identification technology, commonly called RFID, and they held great promise for the automotive industry, says Rick Head. After working with a number of Tier 1 automotive suppliers over the past few years, with growing interest from original equipment manufacturers, the automotive industry seems to agree. 

“Throughout my years in the automotive industry, we always knew what came in on the trucks, but we often didn’t know where each item was in the warehouse,” Head says. “If we’d had the ability to gain visibility into your inventory assets, track missing parts and automatically update our databases, we could have made leaps beyond our competitors.” 

Beyond Government Work

After years of successfully serving the federal government with logistics software and inventory systems for Army warehouses, T&W Operations was ready to move beyond government contracts. When the Heads purchased the business in 2018, “the goal was to move into commercial sectors,” Head says. 

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Over the past two years, the company has gradually moved into the private sector, with a focus on the auto industry. Traditionally, automotive manufacturers and suppliers have kept track of their inventory with barcode systems. But T&W’s system utilizes RFID, which uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects.

“For barcode scanning, you have to have a direct line of sight on the product,” Head says. “But RFID allows for scanning within a range. Every item in inventory is affixed with an RFID tag, and mobile and fixed readers can interact with every tag in their zone. As boxes pass through a facility on a pallet, the reader can read all products on that pallet as they go through.” 

After reading the tags, the RFID system is able to keep track of where the products are in the manufacturing process, automatically updating the system. Rather than keeping employees occupied with scanning and recording inventory barcodes, the scanning and tracking happens automatically and employees can move into manufacturing positions where they can add more value, Head says.

New Technology with a History

“RFID first started in World War II, but the technology wasn’t ready; it wasn’t able to fulfill the potential of RFID,” Head says. “Today, technology has caught up with the hopes of RFID, but we have to overcome the disappointments of the past.” 

Those disappointments stemmed from attempts to make use of RFID before the technology had matured enough to accomplish the goals. Created for military use, the technology was declassified in the 1970s.

While some RFID projects flopped, others have eased into everyday life.

For instance, every time a car uses an E-Z Pass to drive through a toll gate without stopping to pay, RFID technology is at work. As the technology has matured, it has become ripe for solving problems in manufacturing — and T&W is positioned to help auto manufacturers and suppliers harness it. 

How T&W Solves Inventory Challenges

T&W won its first RFID patent in 2016, and the company has seven additional RFID products that are currently in the patent process. For example, T&W’s patented Tower Inventory System can move throughout a warehouse or manufacturing facility and scan RFID tags on every item within the facility. By creating a 3-D model of the facility, the system can automatically update inventory databases and track missing items. The mono-directional tower can be configured in 6-foot height increments up to 30 feet and is driven through a facility by a forklift. The bi-directional towers, which can be configured in either 10-foot or 30-foot heights, can be fully autonomous and robotically conveyed or designed to be conveyed by forklifts.

The Tower Inventory System can include T&W’s patented 3-D Asset Locator Software, providing 100% visibility of inventory assets. “This is extremely beneficial for our clients completing inventory reconciliations, asset location or order fulfillment,” Head says.

Other patented or patent-pending products include portal systems that can be configured for shipping and receiving areas to verify incoming and outgoing material. 

These portal systems can also be configured to monitor material movement throughout a facility and provide quick asset location into a specific area. And T&W’s Operations Tunnel System provides a means of verifying container content of RFID-
enabled devices without human interaction. As items pass through the Tunnel System, the technology provides complete visibility into the container and verification of all RFID-enabled items. 

Warehouse facilities that don’t require the tower system can implement T&W Operations’ W2W Handheld kits. These kits contain various models with options for a variety of RFID Mobile devices and printers. Compatible with T&W’s Android-based software system, these tools offer an end-to-end solution for smaller facilities. 

Clients using the T&W systems have reduced annual inventory hours from more than 2,000 to about 16, Head says.
The ability to maintain 100% accuracy in
inventory has been a game-changer for many of T&W’s clients.    

Looking Ahead 

While COVID has slowed down the manufacturing industry and its supply chain in a general way, “2021 is looking really good,” Head says. T&W is working with a number of Tier 1 automotive suppliers and has original equipment manufacturers showing interest in its inventory control systems. 

In addition to the automotive vertical,
T&W has also found success in other industries including law enforcement, e-commerce, first responders and alcoholic beverages, while continuing to build its defense business. “Our biggest concern is growing too quickly and becoming overwhelmed,” Head says. “There are so many opportunities for our technology but we want to make sure we manage growth wisely.”

As the business continues to grow, T&W plans to add employees — from the current 35 to about 40 this year. It will also move into a new facility in Huntsville — making a $5 million investment in the region.  

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