Can RFID Help Your Supply Chain?
In the past few years, much has been said about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, and how it will revolutionize the supply chain process, both locally, nationally and globally. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is all about, you’re not alone. This article explains what RFID technology is, who’s using it, how they’re using it, and how it could (or not) help improve your supply chain.
What is RFID?
Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is a means of using electronic tags to store data. This electronic data is then transmitted to a scanning antenna to be so that it can be read. In this way, RFID technology is generally used for purposes of identification or tracking. An RFID tag can be made small enough to fit onto a package, container, or even an animal or human. Several people have already elected to have tiny RFID chips implanted under their skin, so that they can be located in the event that they are lost or kidnapped.
While the interest in RFID technology has undergone a tremendous resurgence in popularity in recent years, the technology itself is not new. In fact, some or another variant of RFID technology has been in existence since at least the 1940’s (though it may have been under a different name). Initially used by the military for purposes of aircraft navigation and espionage, the technology has begun to enjoy more diverse uses, such as product tracking, animal identification, and even the scanning of library books.
Among RFID devices, there are two types – passive and active. A passive RFID device is one that does not use an internal power supply to communicate with the scanning antenna. Instead, during the process of being scanned, the radio waves from the scanning antenna itself provide power and activate the RFID tag so that the information encoded on it can be transmitted.
An active RFID device has a power supply of its own. As such, these devices have a greater capacity and range than passive RFID tags. They can transmit their signals over greater distances and in more adverse conditions than passive RFID tags. For example, active RFID devices can transmit signals more easily through water and other liquids, as well as through metal containers. Active RFID devices are also able to store a larger amount of information than passive RFID tags and can even transmit data such as product temperature and humidity. However, active RFID tags tend to be more expensive than passive RFID tags.
There is also a third type of RFID device known as semi-active, or semi-passive. This type of tag receives power from the scanning antenna when scanned, but also has an internal power supply, like an active RFID tag. This additional on-board power supply grants the semi-passive/semi-active tag a greater scanning range than a normal passive RFID tag.
The Benefits of RFID
Companies can benefit from RFID technology in several ways. For one, the technology allows for increased supply chain visibility at all stages of the process. This increased visibility can lead to greater speed and efficiency in transporting products as well as reducing loss that leads to unnecessary costly expenditures and waste. For one, the technology provides a more precise assessment of the amount of product actually electronically inventoried, as opposed to the actual number of units in-store or onsite. The more accurately you can model your supply chain process, the more accurately you can respond with solutions that maximize your profits and your customer experience.
Another way that RFID technology can enhance your supply chain process is through the use of vehicle scanning. For instance, truck drivers can use RFID tags in their vehicles to pass through automated toll collection scanners that are used at transportation hubs, such as tunnels and bridges. This capability saves time and boosts the efficiency of your supply chain services.
RFID technology can be used to scan product pallets, identify product containers and other merchandise, as well as improve estimated delivery times. RFID tags can also be used in the case of a product recall, making it easier to identify points of origin for a defective or unsafe product, as well as product transportation paths and ultimate points of delivery.
RFID can be used in situations when other technological solutions would not be practical, due to reasons of prohibitive cost or difficulty in data collection. RFID works in types of environments that prohibit normal data-gathering, such as crowded warehouses where boxes or pallets of products are stacked too high to see with the eye. RFID also can also function well in environments that are physically dangerous for workers to try to collect data from, such as manufacturing locations where materials may be stored at very high temperatures or where noxious chemicals are being used.
RFID already has makes many day-to-day activities easier for people who use the technology. RFID can be used to open cars via the use of RFID tag enabled keycards. It also allows customers at gas stations to shorten their time at the pump by using an RFID tag to complete payments. Governments around the world have already begun using RFID-enabled smart cards in their transportation systems in order to expedite the travel process for millions of commuters each day.
As RFID is combined with other existing supply chain software applications, new uses for the technology become apparent. For example, because of RFID’s temperature-detection properties, and RFID tag that is installed in a pallet of perishable goods, for example, could be programmed to send out a warning signal the moment that the product had reached an unsafe temperature. This type of early warning system could minimize future instances of spoiled food being sold to the public, and even save lives.
At the very least, it would avoid the financial and branding disasters that can arise when a company is involved in a food contamination scare or outbreak. RFID tags could also be designed to issue a request for replacement of items when supplies run low by integrating RFID technology with facilities monitoring technology. This would help prevent situations such as product shortages and give companies a more accurate picture of product cycle times.
Problems with RFID
Despite the emerging promise and benefits of RFID, the technology still has shortcomings that prevent it from becoming the one-stop supply chain management solution some would claim it is. Understanding these shortcomings will give you a more realistic idea of what this technology can do for your supply chain.
The first problem that you may encounter when trying to implement an RFID technology initiative in your supply chain is integration difficulty. Like any supply chain technology solution, RFID must first pass the test of compatibility. If your suppliers, vendors, and other partners do not have the willingness or capability to integrate RFID technology into their day-to-day operations, you will encounter resistance and possibly technical problems down the line.
Both the United States Department of Defense and Wal-Mart have realized the potential of RFID technology and are using it to improve their business effectiveness. Both organizations require that their vendors adopt RFID solutions as well and place tags on shipments to improve efficiency. However, the integration process has been problematic due to the fact that RFID tags do not always read correctly when scanned, due to interference from several factors that I’ll explain below. Until these technical issues are worked out, even large vendors such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense will not be able to achieve the full benefits of an integrated RFID supply chain.
As mentioned, there are still a host of technical problems that affect RFID technology. First, because RFID tags make use of radio waves, these devices are susceptible to any outside force that interferes with the smooth transmission of radio signals. This type of electromagnetic interference can be caused by a number of sources, ranging from normal background radiation in the environment, to deliberate frequency jamming by certain individuals, to even the electromagnetic pulses caused by solar storms. In some cases, even product packaging can dampen transmission of these radio signals.
The consequences of this type of signal interruption depend on the context in which the RFID tags are being used. In a supermarket, the consequences could be under-stocked items or longer lines, which would be annoying. In a military supply chain, on the other hand, the consequences could be a shortage of weapons and food for soldiers on the front lines of a battle, which would be disastrous.
Other problems that can arise include RFID reader collision and RFID tag collision. RFID reader collision occurs when there is an overlap in the coverage area of multiple RFID readers. Because RFID tags are designed to only be able to transmit to one reader at a time, this can cause several problems. One is that the signals from overlapping readers can interfere and prevent the item from being scanned. Another is that the signal convergence can lead to the same tag being read more than once, leading to duplicate and inaccurate scanning results, which would cause supply chain execution problems.
Another common problem arises from the RFID tags. When large numbers of products with RFID tags are stored together in the same scanning field, the reader can energize multiple tags at once, which sometimes causes them to transmit their signals back to the reader simultaneously. This information overload interferes with the RFID reader’s function and can prevent it from scanning the items, slowing down inventory times and interrupting the supply chain.
Another source of resistance to the adoption of RFID by many organizations stems from ongoing privacy concerns. One concern is that RFID tags can be scanned even after they exit the supply chain, and without anyone’s knowledge. Because RFID tags are non-specific in the scanner that they transmit data to (meaning an RFID tag doesn’t distinguish between a scanner located in a high-level security clearance area in the Pentagon, or the inventory scanner in a department store – it still transmits its data regardless), anyone with an RFID scanner could conceivably access data encoded on an RFID tag. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many RFID scanners are easily portable, and RFID tags can be read at a considerable distance, as well as quite difficult to remove.
In addition, the enormous amount of data created by RFID technology is an issue unto itself. For large companies in particular, the constant scanning and reading of items in a supply chain create an influx of data that is too large to be analyzed effectively. This can lead to a backlog of information that defeats the purpose of gathering information in the first place. After all, what good is detailed information about the speed at which items move out of a warehouse if that detailed information is from four years ago?
- Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a technological means of using radio frequencies to transmit information. This technology is generally used for identification and tracking. RFID devices can be either passive (without an independent power supply), active (with an independent power supply), or semi-active/semi-passive (has an independent power supply, but also receives power from a radio scanner).
- RFID technology can benefit your supply chain system in several ways, including: Greater supply chain visibility; increasing transportation and shipment times through the use of vehicle scanning; tracking product paths in the event of a product recall; allowing inventory of products located in areas that are dangerous or physically difficult to reach; and monitoring the safety of non-perishable items in order to prevent spoiled items being sold.
- RFID technology also has several drawbacks that have limited its adoption on a more widespread scale. Both RFID tags and radio scanners can be negatively influenced by ambient electromagnetic waves. They are also susceptible to radio frequency overlaps that can interfere with the transmission of data or create duplicate scanning results. Worries about the potential abuse of the technology have also raised privacy issues.
In the end, RFID is a technology that has a wide array of potential uses that are just beginning to be explored. While not without its faults, this technology is already changing the way that many companies do business – for the better. With proper implementation, RFID is a technology that can improve your supply chain process and increase your profits.