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RFID - a look under the cover

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Coding and labelling specialist Matthews Intelligent Identification helped peel another layer of complexity from RFID, with a workshop at AUSPACK 2005 featuring presentations from standards body GS1 Australia and US labelling supplier FOX IV Technologies.

The workshop went beyond the benefits of RFID, addressing the practical issues faced by manufacturers implementing the technology, and measures introduced to encourage wider adoption.

Matthews’ national sales and marketing manager Phil Biggs says the possibilities offered by RFID for global supply chains created a buzz in the industry a few years ago similar to the internet revolution in the 1990s.

“Adoption of RFID across the supply chain will bring significant benefits, leading to reduced operational costs and increased profits,” he said.

“This will happen through reduced inventory, benefits in the reduction of in-store warehouse labour, and a reduction of out-of-stock items.”

According to Biggs, given RFID’s benefits and high-profile support, most experts agree the technology is unlikely to fail.

However, he says there are still issues to be explored further, and eventually overcome, before wider adoption will occur.

Standards pave the way

The harmonisation of standards is one such important issue, discussed at length by GS1 Australia standards development coordinator (EPC Network) Gabriel Phillips at the workshop.

Phillips described GS1’s EPC Network system, which is designed to create user-driven, multi-industry standards to improve supply chain operation.

“The idea of the EPC Network is to give complete supply chain visibility, which allows the location of goods to be known at any time, in real-time,” he said.

According to Phillips, standards will play a key role in encouraging greater adoption of RFID by manufacturers.

“For anything to move along, standards are needed,” he said.

“Standards will drive adoption, because without them, it’s just going to be another proprietary system.

“There are 13 different standards in the EPC Network.

“Most are to do with interoperability - making sure readers can talk to the tags and middleware.

“Previously, there were different networks and it was proprietary, which meant people created networks with their own tags, readers and middleware.

“But this meant those tags could not be read with other readers.

“Now with the standards, it doesn’t matter where products are bought - it’s all interoperable.”

To help increase the adoption of RFID, Phillips says GS1 is also working with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to increase regulations that will allow the deployment of high power, four-watt RFID readers.

Phillips says the establishment of the RFID Association of Australia will also help spread the word about RFID in Australia.

The association intends to establish an RFID centre of expertise in Australia, providing guidance and education on RFID.

Phillips also believes the recent emergence of pilot projects in Australia will raise RFID’s profile amongst local manufacturers.

He says one of the key lessons from these pilots is the specific manner in which RFID needs to be applied for each company’s circumstance and infrastructure.

“Just putting RFID onto a system and letting it run is not going to work,” he said.

“There are hundreds of pilots going on, and companies are realising that they need to re-develop their business strategy to use RFID.”

As a result, Phillips says, lessons learnt about the application of RFID during pilot phases are proving invaluable to pilot implementers.

“They are finding very good business cases and real competitive advantages that they are not willing to share, because they’re the ones that have spent the money,” he said.

Phillips warns against Australian manufacturers attempting to learn solely from other companies’ pilot experiences, with no intention to trial RFID themselves.

“Some people in Australia have said they are just going to sit back, wait, and see what others are doing,” he said.

“What they are going to see is their competitors going out in front because they’ve already put in the effort.”

The trick with tags

Some of the lessons from successful pilots include practical technical considerations about the best location to place RFID tags, and the best way to read tags.

FOX IV Technologies CEO Richard Fox told the workshop audience of the issues involved in achieving optimal tag reads, as well as discussing of some of the misnomers about RFID.

“At many conferences people say the great thing about RFID, compared to barcodes, is non line-of-sight (LOS) reading,” he said.

“But RFID doesn’t work that way.

“The qualification is that the LOS between the RFID tag and reader cannot be obstructed by moisture or metal.

“If anything like that is placed between the reader and tag, it won’t read.

“It’s not just obstruction either - placing a tag near, or on, moisture or metal changes its characteristics.”

Fox also spoke highly of the new “Gen2” RFID tags.

“Gen2 is a really powerful, robust specification,” he said.

“The ability of the tag to be read, and the way it handles the readers is pretty impressive.”

As awareness and implementations grow, Fox notes some key developments that will enhance the use of RFID, and what it is capable of achieving for manufacturers.

“One thing everyone talks about is the cost of the tags, and that’s coming down quickly,” he said.

“But also, infrastructure is finally coming into place - with standards - to take advantage of what’s going on with the technology.

“The exchange of data from the retailer level to the manufacturers, if it works right, will be incredible considering the amount of information that can be shared.”

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