Tales from an RFID pilot project

Shirley Arsenault is a transportation and logistics expert from Toronto-based software solutions supplier Allumis on loan to EPCglobal Inc., which is working on electronic product code (EPC) standards for radiofrequency identification, or RFID. EPCglobal is  a subsidiary of the global not-for-profit standards organization GS1.

In February 2009, EPC Global Inc completed the third phase of its Transportation and Logistics (TLS) RFID pilot program. EPCglobal is currently working with three ports in Asia to implement the EPCglobal network in what is being referred to as Phase IV Implementation.

The objectives are:

-Standardize supply chain operation practice using EPC/RFID standards

-Review existing global standards against “real life” transportation and logistics services processes.

-Improve warehouse operations and shorten the lead-time for import/export customs clearance.

-Improve the accuracy of SCM and logistics planning as well as identifying any bottle necks in current supply chain flow.

She shared her experiences with Network World Canada.

What was learned from the pilot?
SA: In the pilot we found that there were not any technological challenges that could not be overcome. If a site survey is done ensuring that you have factored in any other RF technology being used in the environment, the equipment can be installed and tuned to ensure that there is no interference to obtain accurate reads.
In the Phase III pilot we used active tags for the pallets and we had some technical challenges. We didn’t think that the tags would be read when the container door was closed because the container is metal. However, the floor of the container is wood and this caused some problems with the reads for the active container tags.

Integration with the back-end, especially in supply chain situations, can be a challenge. How was this done?

SA: During this pilot we had very few problems from a software perspective. We had learned from the previous two pilots but given that this was a far more complex pilot we were very happy with the results. In this pilot we did not integrate with back end systems, however, that should not be an issue as several software providers are able to query EPCIS and use the data. New Web-based applications were developed for the end users to provide them with visibility of the end to end supply chain.

The role of standards, especially as it applies to large-scale, enterprise applications, is of great importance.

SA: It is extremely important to have standards for both hardware and software. In a previous pilot one of the EPCIS’s that was used was not certified by EPC and it ended up causing a problem for the Web-based application that was querying it. With a lot of the technology used in the pilots we were testing the user requirements and the recommended standards prior to the official standard being finalized.
Do you see RFID as a niche technology or also a mainstream business application?
SA: It can be both. However, industry, to a large extent, has not explored the full potential of the technology. It is something both IT departments and supply chain/logistics departments need to familiarize themselves with. Our end users are asking EPCglobal not only to look at RFID but also other technologies in concert with RFID that could assist in solutions development. When visionaries in companies and governments start looking at this from the perspective of the whole supply chain and implementing the EPCglobal network solution is when major benefits will be achieved.
How are international efforts being coordinated? What is the role of GS1 towards these efforts?

SA: GS1 is working towards assisting countries in adopting the technology. We are currently working with several countries in Asia that are interested in installing RFID infrastructure at their ports/border crossings. The Asian countries are doing this to assist companies in their country in becoming more competitive. These countries will be working with interested shippers and consignees in order to implement the solution that we piloted.
GS1 has also been working on non-RFID solutions as well for Transportation and Logistics. Empty Miles is a collaborative web-based service that enables the reduction of empty backhauls, and quantifies monetary savings, as well as a reduction in carbon emissions for its users. It was first launched in the U.S. in January of 2009. Canadian pilots were completed in April 2009, and the GS1 General Merchandise board approved the initiative to promote the service into the Canadian marketplace shortly thereafter. Customization to suit the Canadian market is currently underway with anticipated roll-out in the fourth quarter of 2009.


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