Start small and early on RFID, report advises Wal-Mart suppliers

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Rfid, Electronic product code, Radio-frequency identification, Wal-mart

Start small, start early and anticipate changing technology in
using radio frequency identification (RFID) is the advice from
Zebra Technologies.

The company has compiled a report on best practices for adopting the technology. The advice is based the experiences of Wal-Mart suppliers Beaver Street Fisheries, Pacific Cycle and Victory Land Group.

Wal-Mart is continuing to push its suppliers toward adopting RFID, meeting this week with mid-sized companies in Dallas to discuss the technology. Zebra manufactures bar code and radio frequency ( RFID) smart labeling,

One major piece of advice the companies followed was to built change into their systems. Academic institutions across the country are setting up RFID labs and expanding research projects, and more vendors are entering the market, as increasing numbers of companies plan to use the technology.

Many want to use it to improve internal business processes. Initiatives like RFID asset and inventory tracking, work in process control, access control, patient and patron monitoring are already underway at many companies.

The result is an increasing the number and kinds of products and software while at the same time global standards are being settled.

"Certainly the RFID architecture put into place today will undergo changes over the next 18 months,"​ Zebra stated in its report. "But that's to be expected, as most businesses don't stand still. What's important is to realize that the vendor relationships you establish today will become more critical as your implementation matures."

Wal-Mart this week hosted its meeting with suppliers along with EPCglobal, an RFID standards organization. The meeting involved the second tier of 300 of the company's suppliers who need to respond to the giant retailer's compliance mandate by January 2007.

Wal-Mart has already required the top 300 suppliers to be RFID compliant by this year, according to a staggered rollout schedule.

Beaver Street Fisheries is a distributor of fish and seafood products. Pacific Cycle is the largest bicycle supplier in North America and Victory Land is a large furniture importer.

Some of the best practices followed by the companies included starting early, choosing supplies carefully, determining whether to use smart labeling formats, picking the right partners, starting small, continuing to test the system, planning if possible to build RFID from the ground up, learning how to use the data and looking beyond compliance for a return on investment (ROI).

All three companies began their RFID programs early. Victory Land and Beaver Street Fisheries had 2006 deadlines, but targeted implementation by 2005 instead. Pacific Cycle started their program early enough in 2004 to be three months ahead of the 2005 deadline.

All three companies noted that the early start was necessary to research the technology, determine partners with whom to work, and assimilate the learnings in their organizations, Zebra noted.

When the first round of Wal-Mart suppliers were selecting tags, their choices were limited to only two vendors. Now, there are at least five major providers of tags or transponders-Avery Dennison, Alien, Symbol, Raflatec and Texas Instruments. All provide a variety of antenna and hip designs.

The components of smart media-including tags, label material, backings and adhesives -need to come together precisely so that the finished product encodes properly, performs as needed on the products to which they are affixed, and provides the wear and tear required over its life cycle.

"Getting smart labels right could be the single-most important decision of your entire RFID implementation, because they carry electronic product code (EPC) data,"​ Zebra stated. "If the smart labels do not work, all the rest of your RFID architecture will not make up for it."

RFID implementations can require a variety of readers and/or tags based on what types of items are being read. how far the readers need to be from the tags, and the speed at which items are moving past the readers.

Beaver Street Fisheries faced a significant hurdle in finding the right tags for its fresh and frozen products. The density and moisture content of each package of frozen fish is not identical, which makes reading performance inconsistent and could result in unreadable cases.

The company's first step was to spend significant time finding the best types of tags for their products.

Beaver Street also started its RFID pilot with only three products. All three companies agreed that starting small made the project a lot less intimidating and reduced costs by saving on mistakes that could disrupt operations, Zebra stated in its report.

The food company also set up an RFID lab in their warehouse to test tags and smart labels, to determine how to orient them on cases and pallets for reliable read rates, and to set up readers so they would not interfere with each other.

Because tags perform differently with different materials, at different locations, and at different channels within the UHF spectrum, companies need to complete thorough testing early in the process so as to deal with unforeseen issues as they to crop up, Zebra stated.

To leverage their RFID implementation, Beaver Street Fisheries is planning to use shipment data collected via RFID to automatically create a bill of lading and advance ship notice for EDI transmission.

"All three companies agree that leveraging their compliance learnings are only the first step to RFID ROI, and extending the technology internally in an organization requires business-process and software re-engineering,"​ Zebra stated.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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