March 18, 2003, 12:00 AM

RFID tags help keep highly efficient warehouse

The e-retailer of intimate apparel says RFID tags are helping it operate a highly efficient warehouse and pick-and-pack system. Employees can learn the system in minutes, FigLeaves says.

Although it randomly stores products in its warehouse, intimate apparel retailer says its system of storing and retrieving products is highly efficient. Its secret lies in using a mixture of RFID tags and bar codes to identify products and storage containers, David Nabarro, chairman and founder, tells Internet Retailer.


"Our warehouse is dynamic," he says. "There’s no point in having a warehouse with empty space, so our whole warehouse is always optimized to new stock. We never have to worry about creating space for different categories, because we just stick products in any old bin."


While it sounds like a sure way to mess up orders, Nabarro reports exceeds 99.9% accuracy in order filling. Its key to success: It uses radio frequency identification, or RFID, along with bar codes to quickly find and sort products to fill orders efficiently and accurately, Nabarro says. The intentionally unorganized system maximizes use of the company`s single, small warehouse, where managers avoid dedicating space to any one product or category because of constantly changing demand for its many varieties of intimate apparel.


To make it all work, FigLeaves has undertaken several initiatives that require communicating information to a database and then marrying that information with other information. For starters, FigLeaves scans the bar codes on all products as workers place them in bins. The scan reader reports the location of products to a database. FigLeaves also has placed RFID tags on totes, or plastic containers, that pickers use to fill orders from warehouse stock. The tags carry numbers that identify the totes.


When a customer places an order, the database links the order with the product location information. When the order is ready to be picked, the system assigns a tote number to the order. The database then reports via a computer on the tote trolley to pickers which products are in an order and where to find them in the warehouse. An employee picks an item from a bin and scans the bar code. The system identifies the correct compartment by reading the RFID tag, then activates a light on the compartment.


Before FigLeaves deployed RFID tags, warehouse employees would pick individual orders separately. Now, with RFID tags enabling the company to track each tote, pickers fill multiple orders simultaneously and accurately, Nabarro says. Each FigLeaves tote has 8 compartments for different orders, and there are three totes on each trolley that pickers push through the warehouse. So each trolley has 24 orders to fill.

When the filled trolley arrives at the packing department, employees read information connected to each tote’s RFID tag to identify each order before packing and shipping it. A networked computer or handheld device pulls additional information about the order to create the packing slip and shipping label. Nabarro says the picking and packing systems are so easy to operate that new employees learn how to use them in minutes


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