Give RFID a second chance

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As the verdicts delivered at the “RFID on trial” session on board the Aurora at the recent Logistics and Supply Chain Forum demonstrated, when it comes to a justifiable business case, there are clear benefits and RFID won hands down. When it came to technology, however, the jury – the assembled delegates – remained unconvinced.

RFID, they concluded, was not necessarily robust enough or even standardised enough to start implementation. It was a result that certainly surprised David Picton, marketing director for logistics and RFID at Symbol Technologies and one of the trial’s “witnesses”. ‘We’re always stressing the business case,’ he said afterwards, ‘but it looks rather as if we should go back to basics and start explaining that the technology really does work.’

A black art
Concerns about the technology are deeply rooted and to some extent understandable. Radio systems were long regarded as a black art comprehended by but a handful of engineering graduates. RFID has also been beset by strange phenomena like the “Faraday Cage” effect upsetting radio signals in metal boxes, weird signal degradation with liquids, suspect interference from static on conveyor belts and a raft of other complexities that most of us had forgotten along with the rest of our O-level physics.

A few years ago RFID technology was, at best, dodgy. Read rates of 50 per cent or less were commonplace, tag mortality was high, and putting tags anywhere near metals or liquid containers was a recipe for disaster. But RFID technology – as with the rest of the IT industry – moves on.

Today, as a growing number of vendors are showing, RFID technology is reliable, robust and efficient. Read-rates can rival bar codes, tag and reader costs are continuing to fall steadily and – if you get the physics right – all those problems with metals, liquids and goodness knows what else can be overcome. Novel solutions are steadily emerging, too. There is Microlise’s trailer portal for example, with slick antennae giving 100 per cent read rates on trucks so avoiding the need for RFID readers at dock doors. Then there is NCR’s combined bar code/RFID EPoS terminal which, after considerable work with Metro, is substantially better than the prototype launched two years ago. Paxar has announced consistent 100 per cent read rates for Metro’s pallets while Qinetiq has some cleaver technology for putting RFID tags directly onto metal containers, now being co-marketed with Integrated Product Intelligence.

There is also a realisation that, despite the best efforts of the standards makers, one size does not and cannot fit all. The UHF technology of Gen2 might be the right solution for collaborative supply chains but not necessarily in every other case, as numerous non-standard but successful RFID projects are already showing.

Marks & Spencer is using 13.56MHz tags for tagging four million food trays but 869.5MHz UHF labels for its item-level garment project and is not at all fazed by such a dichotomy. Equally, even the most enthusiastic RFID buff accepts that hybrid solutions will be around for the foreseeable future – “hybrid” meaning not just combined RFID and bar code schemes but integral biometrics as well.

‘Dual mode terminals and trimodal scanners are appearing,’ says John Greaves, NCR’s vp for RFID, ‘and we can expect to see them in stores soon. It’s quite possible for physics to overcome any of the problems associated with RFID technology, though whether the solution is always cost-effective remains to be seen.’

Working demonstration
NCR is the latest vendor to open its own RFID technology development centre with the launch of TransitionWorks at Peterborough. This, according to Greaves, ‘is not a lab’ – it’s a real working demonstration of what is currently achievable both instore and throughout the supply chain.

NCR, like other RFID vendors, also has a growing list of customers in advanced pilot and early implementation mode. Most of these projects are under strict non-disclosure agreements but the lists of off-the-record names currently being whispered are impressive. ‘

Over the next few months, as these trials come out of the closet, perhaps those concerns over the reliability of RFID technology will finally start to dissipate.

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