Tracking the Data With RFID

Suppliers and retailers prepare for an influx of RFID information.

Manufacturers of consumer goods and retailers that sell them are gearing up to use RFID chips to track products through supply chains. But as pilot projects get under way, some companies are looking for technologies that will help manage the flood of new data that radio-frequency identification solutions will produce.

RFID is a small application-specific integrated chip affixed to individual products or pallets that emits a unique identification number over a radio frequency, and it has been around in some form for more than a decade. But large organizations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Department of Defense and the Healthcare Distribution Management Association, are accelerating its adoption by mandating that their suppliers and members use the technology.

According to IDC, of Framingham, Mass., spending on RFID technology deployed to keep track of products moving along retail supply chains will grow to nearly $1.3 billion by 2008.

Experts say enterprises testing the mettle of RFID implementations are discovering that data collection points are requiring stronger business intelligence rules to control incoming information. Companies are also being forced to buffer existing back-end legacy data systems unused to the overload. Software developers, including SAP AG, Marc Global Services LLC and ObjectStore, have recently rolled out products to aid companies in managing supply chain data.

SAP, for instance, by mid-2004 will release its RFID Solution, which bundles the Walldorf, Germany, companys Auto-ID Infrastructure, Enterprise Portal and Event Management application, which is a component of the MySAP Supply Chain Management suite. The Java-based package enables RFID data to be integrated with SAP R/3 enterprise applications, where it can be used for analysis or in unique business processes.

Separately, Marc Global, of Dulles, Va., this month made available two new components for its namesake supply chain management suite that take advantage of RFID data. Marc RFID Compliance Kit and Marc RFID Enterprise Edition not only print standard RFID EPC (electronic product code) tags for use in managing goods in transit, but they also provide a range of data management capabilities to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, officials said.

The products are based on OatSystems Inc.s Senseware middleware.

For its part, ObjectStore, a division of Progress Software Corp., this month announced new technology to manage RFID data before it enters supply chain management systems. The companys Real Time Event Engine uses ObjectStore Real Time In-Memory Database, or REID, to collect, propagate and correlate RFID-emitted data. Due by the end of this quarter, Real Time Event Engine also supports the EPC Global standard for so-called Savant interfaces and tag formats, specifically the 96-bit Class 1 and Class 0 EPC codes, according to officials at ObjectStore, in Bedford, Mass.

The benefit for users is ObjectStores client database designed for real-time, high-volume RFID data capture. ObjectStore enables a data management architecture specifically built to make sense of RFID events and propagate them into applications from SAP or Oracle Corp., officials said.

Managing RFID is one area under heavy scrutiny by The Gillette Co., which a year ago purchased as many as 500 million EPC tags from Alien Technology Corp. The Boston-based razor maker is determining how to handle RFID data, how to store it, how to retrieve it and how much data needs to be retrieved for a given task.

"Suddenly, here we have potentially significant amounts of data being generated [via RFID] if each pallet and each case has a unique tag on it," said spokesman Paul Fox. "Ideally, you want to be in a position to know what you have, where it is and where its meant to be—who needs it, and today that is simply not possible. As a result of that, products get lost within the supply chain."

Gillette is conducting an RFID pilot in one of its packaging and distribution centers. The company is using the RFID pilot to establish its accuracy to track inventory pallets and cases and then data once goods are shipped out as part of an order, Fox said.

Gillette forklift trucks are enabled with electronic readers to read RFID-based EPC labels on product cases. The company expects the field trial to conclude by midyear and then be extended to a retailers distribution center.