With RFID, the System is the System

RFID’s real benefits are only found in the data and come from good systems design, as prominent case studies illustrate.

By Bert Moore, Director, Communications and Media Relations, AIM Global, and Consultant, IDAT Consulting

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It's all too easy to forget, in the midst of evaluating and implementing RFID technology, that it is only a tool to feed a data management system. Admittedly, RFID can often do this more efficiently than, say, bar codes, but real benefits only come from using the data on the tag.

There are other tools to be used to get data into the host systems: mobile and lift truck-mounted terminals, wireless LANs, even bar codes. No single solution can stand alone. They must all be part of a system.

To use the data, it has to be communicated to and integrated into appropriate back-end software systems and these systems need to be integrated with each other. Collecting receiving data may help improve warehouse systems and inventory accuracy, but unless this data is also linked to order entry (to close the order) and accounts payable (to trigger payment authorization) systems, the promised of increased efficiency goes largely unfulfilled.

Many articles promoting RFID promise the potential to improve supply chain efficiencies to reduce on-hand inventories while, at the same time, increasing item availability. This promise is based on the assumption that data will be shared — quickly and efficiently — up and down the supply chain and even used internally.

That being said, where and how to collect this data most efficiently is something that's often overlooked.

Here are two real world examples of how system design can impact efficiency:

  1. One food products manufacturer is RFID tagging its cartons.
  2. The food product has a high water content and is packaged in jars with metal lids — not the most RF-friendly configuration. Nonetheless, the manufacturer managed to select a tag and placement that worked.

    Upwards of 64 cartons are loaded on each pallet, which is also RFID-labeled.

    The problem is that the manufacturer now wants to read all the carton labels once the pallet is built. In any conceivable pallet configuration, there will be a number of "inside" cartons — cartons with no edge exposed. The manufacturer is (or was) struggling to find a way to ensure reading of all cartons.

    The question it should be asking, however, is not "how?" but "why?"

  3. For another example, in the much-publicized Purdue Pharmaceutical OxyContin trial,
  4. to use RFID for e-pedigree, a box is filled with 48 individually tagged vials which are then read in a specially-designed tunnel reader to verify contents. In the prototype, all 48 tags can be successfully read within five seconds.

    Five seconds? That's hardly production speed.

In both these scenarios, the companies are trying to use RFID alone to provide a solution. And in both scenarios, it would be far more effective to actually utilize a system approach.

In both cases, reading the RFID tags as the cartons are palletized or the box filled would greatly speed the process since a robotic arm or mechanized device is already being used to handle the product. To verify that the pallet is completely loaded or the box completely filled, a scale could easily be used to verify the weight and, therefore, the contents.

Increasingly, RFID readers are being integrated with material handling and packaging equipment. And, while these are great tools to use in your RFID labeling projects, don't forget the range of other tools that are already in your toolbox.

You'll save yourself a considerable amount of stress and, quite likely, save some money as well.

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