RFID can play a big role in working the assests harder. Still, it remains the most talked about and least implemented of all auto-IDtechnologies. But new developments suggest that the RFID’s full potential is yet to be seen. Jessica Davies explains why
Advanced asset tracking is one of the most valuable ways to keep on top of logistics costs. Totes, bins and cages all take a sizeable chunk from the budget, and having the tools to prevent loss, theft, idleness, and the ability to better track inventory, is a prize no company can ignore. Auto-ID technologies, barcoding and RFID are a company’s best hope of obtaining the necessary transparency. But so far RFID has failed to dazzle the logistics industry as it once promised. “The hype that existed around RFID four to five years ago has waned,” says Clive Fearn of Zebra Technologies.
However, David Lyon, EPCglobal business manager at standards organisation GS1 UK, says that in the past six months there has been a spike in interest toward RFID implementation from logistics companies in the UK, and a number of pilots are now being rolled out. “Companies are focusing on sweating assets, and increasing visibility and control of supply chains – they can achieve this with RFID.”
Neil Matthews, vice president and general manager NCE, Checkpoint Systems, has also seen, “a strong and growing interest” in the logistics operations of major manufacturers, such as Airbus, Cephalon, and Kimberley-Clark.
So far, companies have used RFID to run closed-loop applications (internal to the organisation). But this is changing, and now more open-loop pilots are being undertaken. Pascal Durdu, RFID business specialist at Zetes, reckons this is because the underlying RFID is “more mature and proven”, and “users now understand that RFID is an enabling technology which forms part of a solution to resolve a business problem – not a solution in itself.”
Closed-loop supply chains are easier to manage than open-loop, but Andy Chadbourne of Intellident, says: “We have found that our most successful RFID logistics applications give significant benefit to all parties, including the 3PL and suppliers. If you do this then you can get their buy-in and the project will be a success.”
Despite the fact that the cost of the technology has dropped significantly since it first hit the market, it remains one of the biggest barriers to implementation. Terran Churcher, managing director of mobile data specialist Codegate, says: “As cost per tag has remained high, justification for investing has been kept low – the application remains the driver.” High value asset tracking and the ability to write to the tag determines the return on investment.
Andrew Donn of Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, says that “high-ticket” items such as cars and expensive suits are making use of RFID tags in the supply chain. However, “the FMCG products sold for just pennies do not show the return necessary to make the investment viable.”
When determining which auto-ID route will best suit your business, it is vital not to just swap out a barcode system and replace it with RFID. Fearn stresses the importance of ensuring the basic systems are in place before turning to RFID: “The world class companies will have ERP systems, good people, barcoding and scanning systems already in place – all before moving on to RFID.
“There are some companies who still haven’t adopted any form of auto-ID, but are still working with pen and paper. It is vital that those start at the basics before looking to RFID.”
Jaõo Vilaça of Creative Systems, says the biggest difference between barcode and RFID technologies is speed and volume of data. “With barcodes you must read one at a time. With RFID you can read multiple products simultaneously, on the move, without line of sight, without human interference, and with complete traceability through the complete process.”
If the RFID tags are to be used once, there is no business case for them. Tim Stokes, auto-ID specialist at Sick UK, says that where tags are captive on re-usable elements of a system and are retained for multiple data writes, for example on totes, stillages or cages used in logistics operations, the ROI will be “much more favourable”.
At the heart of any RFID application is the tracking and tracing of assets. Stokes points to a pilot project with a West Country-based chilled distribution operation as an example. The company used Sick’s high-frequency interrogators for a high speed (2.5m/sec) conveyor, producing five million asset readings over two years, as the containers were recycled.
RFID performance is improving all the time. Churcher reckons that tracking within the supply chain has improved along with the understanding of where to position the scanners to maximise read rates, but the physical barrier of transmitting radio frequencies through water or metal remains an issue.
Much of the focus has been on RFID as the more exciting auto-ID technology, but a wider range of barcoding products is also hitting the market. One example is the GS1 DataBar, a smaller barcode which can pack more information (such as weight and expiry dates) and can be used on small, or hard-to-mark products, such as fresh produce or cosmetics.
The advantage for retailers is that it can help increase the number of products that can be automatically identified at point-of-sale. It can also improve product authentication, traceability, stock control, product replenishment, variable measure product identification and shrink control.
Donn says: “With the advances in barcode and scanning technology, the justification for investment in RFID is as difficult as ever. There are still technological challenges in deploying it across large installations and the investment in back-end systems to handle the large volume of data that an RFID system generates means additional software and hardware systems are also required, all adding to the cost.”
New ways to bring down the cost of RFID are being explored, such as printing the integrated circuits used to make RFID labels, for which development is ongoing. But the technology, although promising, is still in its infancy and could take years to crack. However, Lyon reckons that once it does, “it’ll drive the price of tags through the floor.”
In the last few years there have been a number of RFID improvements. Checkpoint’s OATSystems division has developed what Matthews refers to as “flexible architecture” software. He says that this enables companies to use their reader infrastructure to deploy real-time error-proofing at the point of physical processing, reducing latency and downstream errors.
Matthews also points to “stray read filtering” as another technological development that has had a “significant impact on logistics operations”. Previously, RFID-tagged items near an RFID portal were being read at the same time that the “correct” tag was being read, resulting in inaccuracies. Over the past few years suppliers have been working to drive out these inefficiencies – developing systems which recognise and address stray reads.
New RFID tags, such as inotec’s Vario Sense, are now hitting the market. David Drinnan, managing director of inotec, says this high-frequency tag has the ability to record the temperature or humidity which it has been exposed to.
inotec has also developed a Dio-bond RFID label that moulds directly into the component so that it becomes part of the finished item. The company has just secured an order for 400,000 in-mould labels for tote boxes in Germany.
Durdu of Zetes reckons solutions for the supply chain need a combination of technologies. “RFID on its own doesn’t make much sense – you still need to integrate barcode, screens, voice, smart cards, wireless.”
Indeed, some of the most successful cases have been when RFID and barcodes have been used together. Finnish specialist in fine art logistics John Nurminen Prima Oy reported better location control, and reduced errors in warehouse records and deliveries after installing a “hybrid system”, which uses a 2D barcode as the main identifier and an RFID tag to double check an item when it is shipped from the warehouse.
The data contained in the barcode is scanned with a Honeywell Dolphin 7900 mobile computer and transferred in real-time, via a wireless local area network, to the database. The RFID tag is placed within the same label, and when the piece of art leaves the warehouse, it passes through an RFID gate where the tag is re-read. Juha Määttä, vice president, operations at Prima, says: “I believe that a reliable logistics system has brought us several new customers, as we receive direct enquiries for it.”
And Stokes points to an example where a warehousing and distribution customer has improved its accurate read rates, by combining the technologies, to more than 99 per cent at speeds in excess of 1.4 metres per second.
German logistics company Papstar opted for a combined RFID/barcode thermal printing system from Toshiba TEC, to help manage its expanding operations. Chief executive Gregor Falke says: “We wanted an RFID-based track and trace system that was as easy as barcode, undistinguishable from barcode, and which would meet all the requirements from customers using either barcode or RFID.” Papstar installed Toshiba TEC’s B-SX4 RFID-enabled barcode printers, and B-SA4TM RFID-ready thermal printers at its central warehousing centre in Germany.