RFID yet to deliver for FedEx

Vendor hype that RFID is stable and ready for enterprise deployment got another reality check from the logistics industry, this time by FedEx Asia Pacific CIO Linda Brigance.

Addressing delegates at Wireless Enterprise World in Sydney last week, Brigance said FedEx research and development trials of RFID were still showing scanning failure rates as high as 25 percent.

To complicate matters further, of the remaining 75 percent of “successful reads”, more than half experienced problems “based on where they are on the package and possibly what’s in the package – such as metal or liquid,” Brigance said.

“We get a 99.9 percent accuracy in the scanning of the barcodes, so anything less than that is really a step back in our business. It’s not something we want to do. We want to wait and see when RFID gets the same accuracy rate,” she added.

Such read rates are no mean feat for FedEx, which shifts 5.5 million packages a day world wide, with each individual parcel being scanned an average of 15 to 20 times en route.

Ruling out any widespread RFID deployment beyond the location of trucks in parking lots, Brigance said she still expects FedEx to move to the new technology – but widespread deployment remains a few years away rather than in “the next 12 months”.

Meanwhile, other wireless deployments are powering ahead, fuelled by management commitment to in-house IT development, a technology budget of US$1.6 billion and some 5000 IT staff.

Having pioneered integrated radio, data and customer contact networks from the 1970s, FedEx is now harmonizing wireless standards for its self-branded and customized wireless hand-held devices known as PowerPads for its army of 40,000 couriers.

This includes refining the devices to harness both distributed systems and mainframe-based transactional applications such Cosmos (Customer Oriented Scanning Management Operating System), which was originally written by FedEx in the mid 1970s – and is still going strong and constantly being developed.

One victory has been making FedEx PowerPads automatically map the most appropriate communications channel to move data, whether by CDMA, GPRS, Bluetooth or 802.11 with a strong preference for GPRS where available.

Brigance said this had now largely been achieved, with couriers unencumbered by sorting out which communications protocol their PowerPads needed to select. This has included fitting a range of modules or nodes to the devices where necessary rather than changing applications.

“We won’t change applications, we will change the communications module,” Brigance said.

As for the ROI FedEx is getting on wireless technologies, Brigance said time in the pick-up cycle for couriers has been slashed by 25 percent.

“In the past they would have to go back to the truck. It’s much more efficient,” she said.

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