Jump into half-baked RFID cake

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) may not be perfect, but that’s not keeping Roman Coba from investigating the technology.

Coba is vice-president, information services at Loblaw Companies Ltd., one of Canada’s biggest food distributors. The firm is testing RFID, technology that’s meant to help companies track goods. The infrastructure includes wireless scanners and radio-enabled tags that tell the scanners all about the products to which the tags are attached.

With RFID, rich product information can flow among all aspects of the supply chain.

Loblaw expects the heavy-duty product tracking RFID provides might decrease out-of-stock situations on store shelves and cut down on incidents of theft between the suppliers’ and the stores’ doors.

The company isn’t ready to go whole-hog on it, though. “Right now it would be premature to commit to any timelines,” Coba said, adding that if — “if” — Loblaw implemented RFID, the firm would probably design a warehouse-by-warehouse rollout, instead of some big-bang approach.

Coba’s “if” is indicative. It represents a trepidation that companies seem to have. Such was the atmosphere at EPCglobal Canada’s RFID conference, held earlier this month in Toronto. Coba was a guest speaker there.

EPCglobal is part of the Electronic Commerce Council of Canada, and works with like-named organizations in other countries to develop RFID and electronic product code standards. Judging from the general conference tone, although some are gung-ho about RFID, caution seems to be the order of the day.

There are plenty of things to be cautious about. RFID tags are expensive: 30 to 50 cents per unit. Read rates — the chances a scanner will successfully capture product information from an RFID tag — are not 100 per cent; they’re closer to 85 per cent. One conference attendee, representing a manufacturer, was concerned that RFID would turn out to be just another high-tech flash in the pan — here now, forgotten tomorrow, despite his firm’s being convinced that RFID is worth purchasing.

“It looks like it could be the new flavour of the day,” he said, preferring not to give his name. But despite that comment, some people insist RFID’s problems are no reason to write it off. In fact, “the sooner you can get engaged, the better off you’ll be,” said Mike O’Shea, director, corporate auto-ID/RFID strategies and technologies at Kimberly-Clark Corp., a health and hygiene products manufacturer.

Companies like Kimberly-Clark and Gillette Co., the personal grooming products maker, are experimenting with the technology and rolling it out. For Gillette, one of the prime benefits has to be better collaboration between the company and its retailing partners, said Jamshed Dubash, director of technology, auto-ID.

Gillette gets immediate details about out-of-stock products, for instance, so the firm can send goods to retailers in a more pro

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