Fort Wayne Company Rides RFID Wave

Logistics is often described as a “just in time” industry, meaning it centers on getting the right thing to the right place at the right time. But RFID and tracking technology company Northern Apex says the hardest of those factors to accomplish is the right “thing.” The small Fort Wayne-based company has been helping businesses add efficiency to their supply chains since 1994, tracking the movement of all those “things.” It’s now riding the wave of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) adoption as more companies explore the use of the budding technology, which Chief Technology Officer Rick Raber describes as “a barcode on steroids.”

“Think about going through the checkout lane; first, you have to find where the barcode is, then get it oriented in front of the register, and then to chime to recognize the item,” says Raber. “With RFID, not only does it not have to be line of sight, I can have 10 packages of M&Ms and it’ll read them all instantaneously.” (LISTEN Raber1) 15106

While it will probably be years before grocery checkout lanes use RFID, it’s a tool gaining momentum on manufacturing floors and at warehouses and retail stores. For example, rather than a retail employee having to individually “zap” barcodes to inventory items, a single pull of the “trigger” on an RFID handheld device counts everything instantaneously. Tiny embedded tags—usually worked into the price label on retail items—contain a simple chip and antennae that communicate via a radio signal with the reader—also with an antennae—that can be handheld or in a fixed location.

In a manufacturing or warehouse setting, RFID is being used from the production floor, through the supply chain, all the way to the store floor.

“If you put the tag on [the item] at the front of the [production] line when the item’s created,” says Raber, “you can tell exactly what items get put on a pallet, when you move the pallet from the production floor to the warehouse, and when it [leaves] the warehouse for an order delivery.”

One of Northern Apex’s clients, Peg Perego, implemented RFID to track products, including its higher ticket price children’s ride-on vehicles. The manufacturer, with its U.S. headquarters in Fort Wayne, needed a system to more closely track its outbound merchandise; Walmart was charging the company when it claimed shipments appeared to be short upon arrival. Peg Perego now tracks individual products from the manufacturing floor to Walmart’s delivery dock.

“Walmart would say, ‘we only got 27 and you said you shipped 29.’ [Peg Perego] had no way to prove it,” says Raber. “Now, the order says we need three Barbie ride-on cars and 10 John Deers, and as they go outbound, we can scan a delivery document for a semi-truck and retrieve what’s supposed to be on that delivery. As we fulfill each order…it allows them to reconcile that upon delivery.”

Northern Apex works with about 20 companies in Indiana, as well as other states, mostly east of the Mississippi. It also has a handful of international clients. The company has created a suite of products that includes hardware and software.

“If a customer needs a specific solution, we’ll try to integrate that from off-the-shelf technologies that are available,” says Raber. “If not, we’ll design the stuff to make it work; sometimes that’s an antennae, a reader or software.” (LISTEN Raber2) 15107

Raber is quick to add, however, that it’s not solely an RFID company. Northern Apex recently installed a barcode-based system for a construction company in Fort Wayne, “because that’s what they needed.”

“The world’s getting filled up with terabytes of data that nobody uses,” says Raber. “Our core is to get actionable data to people. We want it to be data that produces return on investment and value for our clients that allows them to manage their customers better, their product and their supply chain. We want to bring real data that means something and doesn’t just fill up hard drives.”

With Northern Apex experiencing steady growth, Raber says it’s clear supply chains want to use technology to ensure each link is in place for “just in time” delivery of the right thing, at the right place, at the right time.