Marlo Brooke
With all the hype about RFID in the media, separating truth from fiction can be daunting. As many of us know, WalMart is mandating RFID. Did it decide to make this move because its customers (consumers) were demanding the technology? No, for WalMart RFID is a means to an end, a way to save money, improve efficiencies and control risk. But is RFID right for you? The key is to look at RFID as any technology initiative: from a practical basis, considering the benefits first. RFID should support solid business strategy, and not let the tail wag the dog.

What are the benefits? RFID is more than a sophisticated bar coding tool: it offers built-in intelligence. The good news is that all the hype-and, yes, angst-generated from the US Department of Defense and WalMart, has caused the development of new generations of intelligent RFID solutions, which can address issues that go far beyond the synchronized value chain, providing improved visibility and efficiency. Those benefits can basically be divided into three categories: RFID supports the three Ts-trace, track and trigger.

Traceability reduces risk

RFID has the ability to record an item's events. Think of it as a mini-computing or recording device documenting all the conditions for an item. RFID can automatically trace the who, what, where, when and how of an item. It'll tell you who has the item, how long they've had it and what environmental conditions it has encountered, such as humidity, temperature, or contact with pollutants.

Before RFID, many food market segments needed to trace or at least audit an item's conditions but no adequate method existed. With increased globalization and outsourcing, this data becomes vital and the problem of control and visibility becomes more vulnerable. It should come as no surprise, then, that governmental pilots are exploring the use of RFID for food traceability. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) has also identified RFID as a primary tool to improve supply chain security. In meat and dairy processing, for example, RFID can be used to trace the entire life cycle of an animal, providing a more efficient means of managing product recall.

Tracking improves efficiency

As a retailer, WalMart is keenly aware of using RFID to improve receiving and distribution efficiency. Food and beverage processors have similar issues, but they look slightly different. Enter the second T: Tracking, RFID's innate ability to determine an item's whereabouts through the synchronized value chain. Items can now be automatically received and the raw and work-in-progress (WIP) components can be tracked throughout the processing cycle. In fact, in some cases, a combination of both bar coding and RFID may help improve control at your facility. It is useful when you need a great deal of automation and accuracy, or when you are tracking highly valuable items. It can also be used to track valuable assets within the manufacturing or office facility, such as moveable machinery or office equipment.

Trigger automates processes

RFID is a computing device that is connected to a company's network. As such, any activity of an item tagged with RFID can trigger another activity, i.e. a machine function or a database entry. Manufacturers can use it to reduce picking and packing errors. Gillette, for example, has improved its picking efficiency by nearly 75% using the technology. RFID is all about right product, right place, right time.

But it's more than pick accuracy. When RFID is used within the manufacturing process, one completed process can automatically trigger that item's next event. Understanding how RFID can trigger greater automation requires some initial analysis but its power can significantly reduce costs in the processing cycle.

Marlo Brooke is a principal at Avatar Partners, an Irvine, CA-based systems integrator specializing in supply chain and six sigma. She has helped many companies implement EDI, Data Synchronization, RFID and other supply chain optimization solutions. She can be reached at or (949) 622-5557.