The New Functions of RFID Technology

FID uses radio waves to automatically identify or track personnel and materials. It has replaced the bar code in many applications where the bar-code-required line of sight is unavailable.

According to David Williamson, assistant director for transportation, the system "has two key features. First and foremost is customer service. The system provides the rider with much-needed information on arrival times of vehicles and takes some the uncertainty out of using transit. Second, one of our goals is dependable transportation service, and this means service that is on time. The system provides management the tools to effectively measure and improve on our schedule adherence."

Supply Chain Management
In June of 2003, Wal-Mart mandated that all of its top 100 vendors place RFID tags on all its pallets and cases by January 1, 2005. Wal-Mart hopes to use RFID to track the inventory of each case and the pallets containing the cases, while not having to open each one to determine the contents. More and more, supply chain practices allow commodities and products to be misdirected or lost, which is a nightmare for a large company trying to keep its inventories accurate and up to date. Thus, the move by Wal-Mart to shore up not only its internal procedures but also the methods of its suppliers is a step in the right direction.

Wal-Mart survives on being the low-cost alternative in the retail industry. According to Christy Gallagher, spokesperson for Wal-Mart, "Not only do we have the 100 initial suppliers working towards our goal, but 37 additional companies have volunteered to be a part of the process." Many of the companies, like Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Kimberly-Clark, Sara Lee and Johnson & Johnson, are well on their way. Each company has its own method of dealing with the edict, and Wal-Mart understands that they may not all be able to tag 100 percent of their product. But Gallagher stated that the suppliers themselves are realizing the benefits of using RFID in this way. "Hewlett-Packard, for instance, is benefiting from the RFID tagging process by improving their own internal processes," said Gallagher, "thus making their own supply process more productive."

Randy Dunn, national sales and marketing director for ADT Security Systems, said his company is heavily involved in working with Wal-Mart's top suppliers. He indicates that "the companies involved are having to do three things: collect the data, manage the information and do something different with the data that they are not doing now." ADT is assisting companies with the collection of the data. "We also have certification labs that tell us where (an RFID) tag would perform the best, and this is where we can help the most," said Dunn. Very few suppliers have said they would not work to meet Wal-Mart's edict, but one supplier did say it preferred to put money into needed facility improvements rather than RFID infrastructure. Gallagher indicated that this is something each company would need to address, but Wal-Mart does not mandate that the supplier comply or else. "Customer service is always the way Wal-Mart handles its business, and we would gladly work a solution out with this vendor for a win-win."

The obvious question is, How much infrastructure should each of the vendors invest to obtain a viable return on investment within a reasonable amount of time? "One particular supplier wanted to invest $7 million in infrastructure, and we asked them why? Our intent is to make this beneficial to all and not a burden," said Gallagher. One vendor, Beaver Street Fisheries, will realize an ROI within a year. Gallagher hopes this trend will be the prominent one.

The Homeland Security Arena
Homeland security issues, including the use of detectors coupled with RFID, have become major initiatives within many institutions that develop sensors and sensor technology. Auburn University's Detection and Food Safety Center, which has been working in this area since 1995, is developing stamp-sized sensor tags called STags that will cost only five to 10 cents per tag. According to Dr. Brian Chin, the center's director, "They can be placed on appropriate fresh-food products, and with a target sensitivity of tens of cells, the sensors would transmit a host of information by non-line-of-sight radio frequency." For consumer safety, these sensors would measure temperature, bacteria counts, and other chemical and environmental changes.

For the food industry, these sensors can also provide traceability features such as origin, date and time of processing, shipment information and a range of other programmable features. The RFID STags would be found molded into the sides of plastic bottles, attached to the inside cap of glass bottles, molded into Styrofoam meat-trays and attached to plastic wraps.