RFID Solution Is Watertight for North Sails Facility

Oct 05, 2018—

International sailmaker North Sails has leveraged RFID technology to make inventory management of 1,000 sails automatic at its largest facility. With the technology, provided by A2B Tracking, the company now knows which sails are located at its site, and where. It can thereby ensure the status of each sail's repair order, locate a particular sail when needed and enable customers to pick up sails outside of normal business hours (on weekends, for instance), when boat owners are most likely to require them. The solution employs UHF RFID tags affixed to every sail being serviced, along with handheld RFID readers, two fixed reader portals and A2B Tracking's cloud-based software.

North Sails is one of the largest sail-making operations in the world, with 150 lofts throughout 29 countries. It not only makes sails used on racing and cruising sailboats, but also repairs those that are damaged (both North Sails' products, as well as sails from other companies). Its largest loft, located in Rhode Island, can accommodate at least 1,000 sails for repair or short-term storage, says Eric Wakefield, North Sails' service and sales manager.

An employee uses a handheld RFID reader to locate a specific sail.

According to the company, the sail-repair process can take a few days or as much as several weeks to complete. Repair work tends to be seasonal, and a larger volume of sails tends to come in during the summer months. Once they are received from a boat owner, sails are placed on the production floor or in a storage area. North Sails strives to provide fast service to those who arrive to pick up, drop off or inquire about a sail, but that traditionally meant sorting through the sails manually in order to identify the right one. In some cases, sails are transferred from one loft to another in a different part of the country, adding complexity to the inventory-management process.

Sails can vary in size from about 12 pounds to 2,000 pounds. They come in odd shapes and don't always stack well, the company explains, so storing them can be an imperfect science—and identifying and counting every sail can be even harder. Despite that, the company conducted twice-annual inventory counts at each loft, which can last a full week or longer and is not only labor-intensive, but prone to errors. Sometimes, a small sail can fall behind a much larger one, or be stacked underneath others.

By the time the multiple days of inventory counting are complete, Wakefield says, the count may already be inaccurate since sails will have been moved, taken or added to inventory during that span of time. There was also the question of finding an asset quickly when a customer arrived to pick it up. In some cases, boat owners may leave a sail for a full season or longer, then arrive unexpectedly to pick it up. He says he has had to replace sails, build new ones or spend exhaustive hours looking for one brought in months or even years prior.

Wakefield says he has been aware of RFID for a decade or more. "I was reading about RFID 10 years ago," he states, "trying to figure out how we could introduce it to manage sails inventory." The technology initially seemed too expensive, however, as most companies offered solutions that cost approximately $150,000. "For us, as a small location, that didn't really work." More recently, Wakefield adds, his firm began looking into A2B Tracking's passive UHF solution, a cloud-based solution with a low cost for the infrastructure deployment, as well as a monthly software fee.