Small Repair Business Streamlines Processes

Stoll & Co., in Ohio, uses RFID to manage the roughly 12,000 watches it handles monthly, improving productivity and customer service.

By - By Michael Belfiore

July 19, 2015/RFID Journal --When Ron Stoll began his watch-repair business with a single wristwatch in 1982, he couldn't imagine that one day he'd have to be concerned about managing the cleaning, repair and shipping of some 120,000 timepieces annually. Today, Stoll & Co. has grown to 62 employees working at an 8,000 square-foot facility in Dayton, Ohio. The firm handles some individual repairs from consumers, but 95 percent of its business comes from manufacturers and retail jewelers, including those in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

The small company faced big challenges as it tried to provide quality work and service customers on a timely basis. Stoll was managing the 10,000 to 12,000 watches it handles monthly with manual processes, which were inefficient and time-consuming. Each watch may go through as many as 15 different pairs of hands, as the work to be done on it is estimated, and the watch is disassembled, cleaned, repaired, lubricated, timed, pressure-checked and reassembled. It was not uncommon for watches to become mislaid as they moved from desk to desk, and workers would have to comb through large numbers of individually bagged watches to find the one they should be repairing.

To solve these challenges, in June 2012, Stoll deployed a passive RFID solution provided by CDO Technologies, to track watches from intake through repairs. Since then, the company has integrated RFID technology into its shipping process, and in November 2014, it added a batch-processing application that can update the statuses of 50 to 60 watches simultaneously.

The three-phase RFID project has transformed the company's business, Stoll says, making it more cost-effective and his employees more productive. In addition, he notes, the ability to quickly identify each watch's location helps customer-service representatives update customers who call in to check on the status of their repairs.

The Right Timing

Stoll, who is a strong believer in the power of information technology to streamline business functions, began researching RFID in 2009. At that time, he found the technology was primarily used by organizations with much larger budgets than his. But he believed prices would drop, so he stayed on top of developments in the RFID field. "I've always had the philosophy that you're only as good as your IT," he says.

Finally, in 2012, Stoll judged that prices might be low enough for him to begin looking for a vendor to discuss a possible RFID solution for his business. He put his software engineer, Ali Mostashfi, on the case, and his search led to systems integrator CDO Technologies, based in Stoll & Co.'s hometown of Dayton.

Robert Zielinski, CDO's director of commercial marketing, jokes that Mostashfi probably just called the first entry in an alphabetical directory of RFID vendors—Alien Technologies, which works with and recommended CDO. But Stoll remembers it differently. "Ali had reached out to some vendors in other parts of the country," he says. But after talking to Alien and Zielinski, he was convinced CDO would be able to provide the best solution, in part, because of proximity.

After learning about Stoll's problems, Zielinski suggested the company begin by using RFID to help employees to quickly locate watches and update their status, with fewer errors than with the bar-code system they were using. CDO designed a system to track watches as they came through the door and as they moved through the various repair and maintenance areas.

These days, when Stoll receives a shipment, each watch is placed in a plastic bag that is identified via an RFID label. The label, printed on a Zebra Technologies ZT410 printer-encoder, contains a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Alien Squiggle inlay. The printer encodes the inlay with a unique ID number that is associated with that order in Stoll's work-order management software, which was designed by Mostashfi and resides on the company's servers. The label also carries a bar code that the firm still uses for some functions, such as looking up work orders.

The watches are then sorted into dozens of bins, based on the type of service required. Customer-service representatives use one of two Alien ALH-9000 handheld readers to locate jobs, so they can update customers regarding the status of their watch repairs. Only two handhelds are needed, due to the relatively small size of the repair facility.

Zielinski and his team tested the system offsite before bringing it to Stoll for onsite testing. Stoll believes that approach was key to a successful deployment. "We'd come in on Saturday," he says, "and we'd have three or four people on my team start hypothetically moving stuff around and creating scenarios." Anything that didn't work as expected could then be corrected before business had to depend on it. "So far, it's been seamless."

A minimal amount of training was needed, Stoll says, because his team was already adding bar codes to plastic bags as watches came through the door. It was a simple matter to switch to labels that included RFID tags, and to train employees to use the handheld readers to locate watches.

Phase Two

It took two months to design and implement the watch-tracking system. With the first phase working well, Stoll decided, a few months later, to integrate RFID technology with the company's shipping processes, in order to streamline that part of the business. Manually entering information into the company's database used to process shipments was time-consuming and errorprone. Invoicing customers was also a manual process, which was often delayed as employees rushed to make shipments at the end of each day.

Mostashfi integrated Stoll's work-order software with online shipping applications from United Parcel Service (UPS) and other delivery companies. Then, working with CDO, Stoll installed an Alien ALR-9900+ fixed reader and an Alien ALR-9608 antenna in each of its two shipping stations.

Now, when a worker places a package on the scale to weigh it for shipment, the RFID reader verifies that the correct watches are in that package. If a watch has inadvertently been left out, it can be located quickly and added to the package. If the repairs on the missing watch haven't been completed, the system provides the option to delay shipping the package, potentially saving money on postage.

 In addition, when the RFID tags are read, the work-order software automatically generates invoices.

Phase Three

In April 2013, Stoll and Zielinski developed a plan to use RFID to provide visibility into each watch's repair status. While using handheld readers helped customer reps locate watches, they still had to hunt for them at different repair technicians' desks. Stoll ordered custom-made boxes, which could each hold 50 to 60 watches, for the quality-control technicians' desks. The fiberglass box is covered with an RF-shielded cloth to prevent tags outside of the box from being interrogated by mistake. Each box was equipped with an ALR-9900+ fixed reader. Stoll developed a batch-processing software application.

When a watch repair is completed, a technician places it in a bin, which is collected periodically by a quality-control technician. The bin is placed in the custom box, and the quality-control technician opens the batch-processing software. The repair service is marked as completed and the watches are assigned to the next operation. The bins are then placed on rolling shelves to await the next step. The update can be seen by anyone logged into the database, including customer-service representatives.

Getting buy-in from the quality-control technicians who would be expected to use the batch-processing boxes required some forethought. Zielinski facilitated the process by first placing mockups that were the same size and shape as the actual boxes on the technicians' desks, so they could become used to their physical presence. Then, small-scale testing with the real boxes convinced the technicians of the benefits of using them. "We brought in one of the batch-processing systems," Zielinski says, "and people started to say, 'Why don't I have one of those? I do batch processing.'"

Watching the Benefits

With each RFID application, Stoll realized his goal of using technology to improve efficiencies. While he says he can't recall how much money he has spent on RFID, he adds that it doesn't matter. "Today, I couldn't imagine running our business without those little RFID chips," he states. "It would be like being in the Stone Age." The RFID solution, he adds, has reduced the number of payroll hours at the company each week, to approximately 60 fewer hours than before the system was installed.

The amount of time workers spend hunting for bags of watches undergoing repair has been greatly reduced, Zielinski reports. He estimates that Stoll employees went from spending six person hours a day, on average, locating individual repair jobs to less than five minutes.

The company has also reduced the cost associated with shipping repaired watches by 90 percent, Stoll says. Contributing to the savings is the ability to print itemized invoices for repaired watches and shipping labels simultaneously.

In addition, the RFID solution has improved customer service by facilitating fast responses to telephone enquiries. A customer service representative can quickly find a particular watch in question and provide updates to its repair status. "In today's society," Stoll says, "people don't like to wait more than a millisecond."

Stoll says he plans to continue to add RFID technology to his business processes over time. Next in the pipeline is a project to add readers to the vaults in which watches are stored overnight. He envisions the system registering the thousands of watches going into the vaults at night, as well as alerting employees if they miss putting away even one or two of them.

Stoll suggests that other small businesses contemplating an RFID deployment should not "look at what it costs to do these projects. Look at how much it can save you or how much more efficient it can make your business, and how it can allow your business to grow."