The management of supply chains is constantly developing due to momentous changes such as the Internet, E-commerce and the globalisation of supply chains. Its success often relies on rapid, accurate and efficient handling of data. The trend towards lean and agile distribution channels and the growth of Fourth Party Logistic Providers (4PLs) within the supply chain industry requires significant organisation and management. The efficient control of these activities requires supply chain knowledge, operational information and importantly, timely and accurate data to support the decision making process. Essentially, effective and efficient data acquisition techniques are required.
RFID is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to communicate the identity of individual items over an air interface. RFID works similarly to bar code technology in that an item has to be interrogated by a scanner or reader for it to be identified. Barcodes, however, have one significant downfall, they require line-of-site technology. That means the scanner has to see the barcode to read it, which usually means items have to be manually oriented towards the scanner for it to be read. Conversely, RFID does not require line-of-site and can be read as long as the item is within range of the reader.
RFID is now being considered as an integral link in E-Commerce environments. The technology in theory should enhance and complement Electronic Data Interchanges (EDIs) to facilitate quick response and the generation of exception reports. This should allow real time information to be transmitted to partners within the supply chain supporting the decision-making process. Ultimately RFID should provide immediacy of data right down to individual item level identification. This can help bridge the gap between the customer, the order and order fullfilment process to the satisfaction of the customer. This means that it can enable the enhanced responsiveness expected within an E-Business environment.
The supply of on-demand barcode label printers currently represents one of the most widely used AIDC technologies (technologies such as: barcodes, smart cards, magnetic stripes on credit cards, optical character recognition etc) in supply chain applications (e.g. EPOS, warehouse and inventory management). Due to mandates set by influential leaders in the retail and defence industries, barcode label printers with RFID enabled capabilities present a real opportunity for companies to develop and extend their product portfolios by providing products which will enable companies to meet compliance objectives. Opportunities also exist to provide printers for those companies faced with compliance for when usage and acceptance of the technology becomes more prevalent. An entire new market segment will have emerged, requiring a widespread ongoing supply of printers, peripheral equipment and consumables.
Bar code systems Bar code systems include the symbologies that encode data to be optically read, printing technologies that produce the machine-readable symbols and scanners and decoders that capture the visual images of the symbologies and convert them into computer compatible digital data. Barcode scanning reduces errors associated with manual data handling, and produces visibility to aid supply chain management. A significant benefit of bar codes is that they are extremely cheap to produce and provide an efficient means of item identification. Unfortunately, according to some sources, bar codes are proving increasingly inadequate in a growing number of applications. Bar coding is an optical technology, which introduces constraints regarding orientation of the product (invariably requiring human intervention) and cleanliness of labels and scanners for fast efficient data collection. Bar codes can be easily copied and so become an easy target for counterfeiting. In addition, standard barcodes have low storage capacity, cannot be reprogrammed and only identify the manufacturer and product and not the unique item. Industry bodies indicate that bar code systems are now a mature technology with limited potential for further growth.
RFID is emerging as a complementary technology to help overcome some of the drawbacks associated with bar code technology. RFID systems consist of transponders (tags), which are made up of a microchip with a coiled antenna and an interrogator (reader) with an antenna. The tags are attached to the items to be identified and the RFID readers communicate with the tags via electromagnetic waves. RFID middleware (software) provides the interface for communication between the interrogator and existing company databases and information management systems. RFID is a term used to describe any identification device that can be sensed at a distance by radio frequencies with few problems of obstruction and mis-orientation. The devices are often referred to as ‘RFID tags’ or ‘Smart Labels’.
In its most basic form, a smart label consists of an ultra- thin RFID tag often referred to as an inlay. Inlays for smart labels are available in the 13.56 MHz, 860 to 930 MHz and 2.45 GHz frequency ranges. The inlays are embedded in label material, which is printed with human-readable text, graphics and bar codes (passive smart label). The printed data both supplements and backs up the information that is programmed into the tag. An evolutionary product to passive smart label technology is the smart active label (SAL). SALs can be defined using the same definition of smart labels above, but for one clear distinction, the inclusion of an integral power source. This distinguishing characteristic allows SALs to provide enhanced functionality over passive RFID smart labels including sensory, processing, display and locating capabilities. Smart labels are typically used for disposable applications and are not as durable as permanent RFID tags, which can be encased in materials to withstand harsh environments. Although one company suggests that the label material can be developed to withstand environmental conditions and that appropriate adhesive can ensure the label lasts the required duration.
Smart labels are referred to as smart because of their flexible capabilities provided by the RFID tag embedded in the label. The tag can be programmed and/or updated in the field allowing the same label to be reused serving multiple needs and disparate applications. Subsequently, the label is no longer static as a bar code label, but dynamic in its capability when equipped with RFID. Supporters of RFID suggest benefits which include: cost savings through automating the check-out process, a reduction in labour associated with performing inventory counts; improved theft prevention and increased authenticity control, a reduction in inventory holding cost, diversions and improved product availability. Unfortunately, an exact description of how the benefits are attainable in practice has often remained vague. The main criticisms on RFID technology are that it is too expensive and that it is unlikely that the investment will pay off. It is also argued that RFID is an over-marketed, hyped technology and that existing bar code based systems already provide most of the needed functionality.
More to follow in the next article.
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