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Returning Thoughts

Returning Thoughts

by Paul Rupnow, Director, Andlor Systems

Reverse Logistics Magazine, Edition 67

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Improvements in technology are making data gathering easier for Reverse Logistics teams. Most products now have one or more bar codes that can be utilized to speed data collection, increase accuracy and improve information gathering for better processing. The use of bar codes for data collection is standard procedure in forward logistics. Rapid data collection is an even greater benefit for Reverse Logistics processing since inbound receipt contents are often unknown, not easily visually identified, contain count discrepancies and often require individual unit handling and assessment. As a result of the additional identification and unit handling, there is an ongoing desire to find faster, easier and more accurate ways to process returns to reduce labor time and costs. Bar codes can be a helpful tool to gain productivity improvements.

Bar Codes for Data Capture
There are several types of bar codes that are available and can be helpful in a Reverse Logistics warehouse:

UPC bar codes - Most products sold in the retail channel have bar codes on the packaging. The UPC codes can be used for product identification (assuming the correct product is in the box, so typically there is a validation step before or after the UPC scan).

Serial Number and Identifier bar codes - Many products now have bar coded serial numbers and sometimes several other similar identifiers that can be easily and quickly scanned for accurate data capture.
2D Bar codes - Some products now contain 2D bar codes that contain multiple fields of data, for even more efficient data collection.

License Plate Bar Codes - many Reverse Logistics or repair operations will print travelers, tags or license plate bar codes for units or groups of units to easily track and identify the units as they move through processes or repair steps in the warehouse.

RFID - some new products now contain RFID chips with several fields of data that can help speed identification and processing. Some RFID chips can even accept new data on the tags to update future users. Some Reverse Logistics operations will attach an RFID tag to a unit when it arrives, rather than a printed tag or traveler, to help speed tracking and processing.

QR codes - The RLA Standards committee is also now working to develop a standard QR code for products that would enable scanning many years after the product is purchased. QR codes can hold significant amounts of data including item codes, serial numbers, warranty data, correct disposal data and even URLs to web sites for support, warranty, repair or disposal assistance.

Scanning and Data Collection Technologies
Bar Code scanning technology options have been progressing quickly over the last few years since the emergence of mobile devices, mobile apps and the desire for people to put their handheld devices to work.

Handheld bar code scanners - wired or wireless options are available. These scanners are great when a fixed or mobile screen is close so the user can view, monitor and respond to the application and ensure the scan has captured data correctly.

Portable computers with a bar code scanner - these industrial strength scanners have been the main tools in the warehouse for years. However, recently many companies are also looking at mobile or tablet sized computers for better screens with enhanced user interface options. These new options are sometimes less expensive but typically are not industrial strength for drops or high volume, heavy usage environments.

Finger bar code scanners - With their Bluetooth connectivity to a computer, tablet, mobile or sometimes with their own small user interface screen, these scanners can be very helpful in a Reverse Logistics receiving environment where two free hands can help productivity significantly.

RFID scanners - handheld or fixed station - these scanners are fast, can capture multiple fields of data at the same time, however, not many products use RFID tags yet. Hopefully tag costs come down in the future and there is more adoption of these tags, since they are very helpful for Reverse Logistics processing.

Voice Directed - the use of voice commands has been very helpful in some forward logistics or pick and pack fulfillment operations. The voice interface allows for hands free operation which is helpful in Reverse Logistics receiving, however the variability of the inbound items and process requirements may make the voice interface difficult for many operations.

Google Glass - there are some examples on YouTube of Google Glass at work in a warehouse. In a Reverse Logistics environment, it would be helpful for a hands free user to be able to see data, a user interface or respond to voice commands while they move around a Receiving station. This may be an interesting option for some companies as the technology progresses.

Reverse Logistics Software and Processes
Regardless of the data capture technologies utilized above, good processes and good software systems are also essential. Ensure you understand the bar codes or data available and how you need to process your returns prior to choosing your data capture tools and software systems, especially if you are in a high volume reverse logistics processing environment, where every scan, keystroke, touch or millisecond counts.
Paul Rupnow - Director, Reverse Logistics Systems, Andlor Logistics Systems Inc.
Editor - Reverse Logistics Professional Report Business Insights and Strategies for Managing Product Returns
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