RFID will be a major advance in supply chain management, but enterprises will need to do considerable upfront planning and testing to successfully implement and integrate the technology.
Although radio-frequency identification technology can be used in a broad range of applications, ITs focus right now should be on the supply chain. RFID will have a significant impact on every facet of supply chain management—from the mundane, such as moving goods through loading docks, to the complex, such as managing terabytes of data as information about goods on hand is collected in real time.
RFID will initially be used to manage the identification of large lots of goods—for example, at the pallet and carton levels. RFID tags, therefore, must have unique serial identifier information that associates each lot with a corresponding bill of lading sent from the originator. Because RFID readers can scan tags many times during a 1-second period, the serial identifier will prevent the application making the data request from getting multiple counts of the same items.
RFID tags are classified as passive or active. Passive tags work by taking the energy received from the reader through a tags antenna and using that energy to transmit stored data back to the reader. Passive tags will likely be more widely used, at least at first, because of their low cost.
Active tags include their own power supply, usually a battery, to transmit information directly to a reader. The battery can also be used to help power or interact with other devices. For example, a company shipping perishable goods may want to use active tags that integrate with thermometers to ensure the goods are kept at an acceptable temperature.
RFID tags also have the potential, at the individual-item level, to store information that can be relevant to broader applications. For example, individual items with embedded RFID tags could contain information about warrantee and prior service to make it easier for companies to service those items.
The development of standards for encoding information on RFID tags will be critical to making the technology as important to the supply chain as bar codes currently are.
EPCglobal Inc., the standards body that manages UPC (universal product code) information in bar codes, sets the standards for how basic product information is encoded in the RFID chips. (RFID chips are designed to augment bar codes.)
EPCglobal will establish the standards on how information is passed from RFID readers to various applications, as well as from application to application, in the supply chain.
When one company ships goods to another company, these standards will help simplify the electronic transactions that occur between the organizations ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems. The standards will determine how middleware handles data scanned by an RFID reader as goods enter a warehouse and will pass the data to an enterprise application.
The current version of the EPC (electronic product code) Tag Data Standard specifies the data format for encoding and reading data from 64- and 96-bit RFID tags. The data stored in these tags dictates information about a product in UPC terms, including company and product identifiers.
Savant is EPCglobals proposed standard for defining how middleware will structure data gathered by an RFID reader. Savant middleware will perform preprocess routing and storing of data, which includes eliminating duplicate reads. Savant middleware will then pass only requested information to the enterprise application. Savant also provides a framework for creating queries against readers on the network.
EPCglobal standards address some of the privacy concerns regarding RFID by dictating the means by which RFID data stored in a tag can be erased. The larger concern, however, is that retailers will not erase tag data on individual items after purchase.
PML (Physical Markup Language) is the XML schema that more broadly defines the exchange of data within the RFID-enabled supply chain. The PML schema gives applications a broad set of rules by which applications exchange data. The schema abstracts information that may already be defined in other standards, such as UPC.
PML provides a way for applications to gather not only information from readers but also information about the readers themselves, such as reader health. PML determines the vocabulary for the exchange of data between applications, such as a suppliers shipping system and a customers receiving system.
On a broader level, middleware in the RFID supply chain application could perform tasks other than those defined by Savant and PML.
For example, ConnecTerra Inc. provides software that operates largely at the Savant layer while including additional information about RFID readers. GenuOne Inc. provides software that manages rules and event and data persistence and integrates with business applications.
In large part, the enterprise applications that touch the supply chain, such as ERP, warehouse management systems and CRM (customer relationship management) applications, do not integrate directly with RFID systems. Companies considering RFID technology need to determine how best to manage the flow of data from the reader to an application and to the user through middleware.
Middleware that delivers broad application support will help companies easily integrate RFID with existing applications.
Companies need to find middleware applications that can manage data in formats supported by their enterprise applications, such as XML, HTTP and Web Services Intermediaries.
When researching middleware solutions, companies should carefully examine pricing models. Most RFID middleware applications will include an edge server for managing and processing RFID requests to the readers and an API for managing integration with enterprise applications. Products may be initially licensed according to the number of edge servers in place or the number of RFID readers in place.
Companies need to think about how to roll out the technology to ensure that software scales affordably to final implementation.
Figuring out even the basics of RFID technology implementation, such as where to place RFID tags, will require testing and resources that may be out of reach for many small businesses. Sun Microsystems Inc.s Sun RFID Test Center, in Dallas, can help companies determine how to most effectively meet industry requirements and examine the technology for broader benefits.
Vijay Sarathy, group marketing manager for Suns RFID initiative, said Sun will provide testing services that focus on compliance as well as custom integration with existing enterprise applications.
The cost to use the center, which is due to open next month, hasnt been determined.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at [email protected].
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