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New transponders keep track of inventory

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Zur Forderung Der Angewandten Forschung E.V. : 09 August, 2003  (New Product)
Clothes make the man, but they also create work. Each consignment has to be recorded on arrival at the warehouse, and again after shipment to one of retail outlets. When the job involves thousands of garments, it can become a real labor of Sisyphus, especially when the time comes round for the next general inventory.
Each item of clothing has to be identified on the basis of its bar-code label. German department store Kaufhof Warenhaus AG and fashion company Gerry Weber have embarked on a three-month pilot project, which ends in September, to test a system of non-contact data transmission using smart labels with an integrated transponder. The project partners are being advised by the Fraunhofer Institutes for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS and for Material Flow and Logistics IML.

The transponders work on the basis of radio-frequency identification. Like the electronic security tags used to prevent theft, they consist of a small memory chip containing specific data on the item of clothing, and a built-in antenna. When an article passes through a special bay equipped with a transponder unit, the tag sends full information on its color, size, and serial number. The system allows entire racks of clothes to be scanned automatically when they arrive at the depot, without having to remove each article from the rail. The greatest technological challenge is to read the tags as quickly as possible. 'Unlike security devices, which only indicate whether an article has been legitimately purchased or not, these tags have to provide the complete data needed to identify the article,' explains IMS researcher Dr. Gerd vom Bögel.

Radio-frequency ID tags allow Kaufhof stock managers to track each product right along the logistics chain, from the supplier to the central warehouse and on to the two participating retail stores in the cities of Münster and Wesel. 'Even a finished product still has to run through numerous processing steps: quality control, repairs, dispatch. The transponder is a robust identification tool for the whole of this long journey,' says Michael Wagner of the IML in Dortmund. It can be used by sales staff in the store to check inventory using portable scanners. Additional reading devices are affixed to the display shelves to keep track of stock movements, and installed at the cash desk to speed up sales transactions. When an item is sold, the tag is removed. 'The first objective of the pilot project is to define the limits and potential applications of this technology, and to determine how it can best be employed by our suppliers,' says Wilfried Kanzok of Kaufhof.
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