If one thing stood out at this week’s RFID Live show in Orlando, it is the fact that RFID is becoming an embedded technology that is standard protocol in many business operations.
RFID is rapidly moving beyond many of its initial use cases, such as inventory visibility in retail and asset tracking for manufacturers. Airbus, for example, now views RFID as a tool to improve visibility and business processes and enable a digital and paperless supply chain.
The big news out of RFID Live was the unveiling of the RAIN RFID Alliance, a group including Google, Impinj, Smartrac and Intel. While Google is mostly a silent partner, the fact that the online behemoth sees the value in promoting UHF RFID worldwide is a giant indicator of the technology’s bright future.
Carlo Nizam, head of value chain visibility and RFID at Airbus, says that his company is using RFID to automate business processes and to create powerful continuous improvement tools by merging the data harvested from RFID with software programs.
“You’ve all heard about our new aircraft, and those aircraft swallow up a lot of cash in terms of development, engineering resources and capital assets before we see any return,” he says. “There is a huge amount of cash flow involved, and that means there is a very strong appetite for improvement and innovation.
“Visibility is a prerequisite for all savings, and the role of RFID is to lift that level of measurability and visibility to enhance that level of savings.”
Nizam says that Airbus just recently decided to expand part marking across the fleet for its internal traceable parts, with the intention to fully deploy by end of 2014 for those selected parts.
“We are expanding tags on parts for internal traceable parts and very soon will be making a decision regarding parts outside the supply chain,” he says. “But we won’t do that until we’ve spoken with our entire supply chain.”
Nizam said that by including tags on parts like life vests on its A330 aircraft, on-plane cabin inspections for life vests have been reduced from 14 hours to 26 minutes.
RFID: new use cases in retail
Like Airbus, British retailer Marks & Spencer is starting to use RFID well beyond its initial use case of improving inventory accuracy. M&S, which will use more than 400 UHF tags this year for apparel goods, consumed 18 percent of the world’s supply of tags used on apparel last year. M&S is on its way to becoming the first retailer in the world to tag 100 percent of its general merchandise items in order to provide more holistic inventory tracking throughout its supply chain.
However, M&S is moving beyond inventory use cases and is now using RFID in 40 stores to check delivery discrepancies. “We’ve made great strides in terms of identifying the flow of merchandise in the store and why product is not where it should be at times,” said Richard Jenkins, the head of RFID at M&S. “We’ve made changes as the result of new information that RFID has provided us.”
M&S is also running proof of concept studies to determine the feasibility of using ceiling mounted reader equipment.
“This has two massive advantages,” says Jenkins. “Instead of counting items every two weeks or four weeks, you can count daily. In addition, you can eliminate all of the resource costs that go along with that activity.”
M&S is also studying how RFID can contribute to enhancing the overall customer shopping experience.
“There are so many doors that open once the cost of the tag is absorbed,” says Jenkins. “There are a good many touch points where this technology can be utilized in the supply chain and for customer experience and we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
Checkpoint Solutions also revealed during RFID Live that a major apparel retailer in Europe has ordered several hundred thousand of its new Zephyr 2 RFID tags for use in a multi-store pilot.
The new label design is certified by the University of Arkansas’ ARC Center for item-level tagging of all apparel categories in the U.S. and Europe and is powered by an integrated UCODE 7 chip from NXP Semiconductors.
“Major apparel retailers have expressed a strong interest in the capabilities that the Zephyr 2 offers, particularly those with broad apparel product lines with large-scale deployment needs, says Umesh Cooduvalli, Checkpoint’s senior director for RFID consumables. “We’re excited that this product is already being used in RFID pilots and we look forward to scaling up supply for future deployments.”
Bechtel records more than 6.3 million tag reads at LNG project
During the conference, construction engineering firm Bechtel detailed the award-winning RFID solution for a complex project involving the construction of three liquified natural gas (LNG) plants on Curtis Island in Queensland, Australia.
The sites represented a supply chain challenge, given that they were accessible only by water and that two of the three sites — all with separate owners — had no room to store materials that would not be used within two weeks of delivery.
Bechtel deployed the Jovix system from Atlas RFID Solutions to assist in the tracking and delivery of materials from multiple storage locations to the three project construction sites. The tracking and delivery for the projects presented unique challenges given the vast size of the construction sites and their island location, requiring the materials to be stored on the mainland and transported across a harbor. The approach enabled automation of work processes typically performed manually and resulted in better than expected efficiencies.
Bechtel procured and deployed 60,000 active RFID tags from Identec Solutions. By doing so, Bechtel was able to track and trace more than 100,000 components, including 7,000 steel bundles and 40,000 pipe spools.
Bechtel relied on 13 gate readers to gather data, including five installed at mainland port facilities and one at each of the Curtis Island base ports. So far, the software system has recorded more than 6.3 million tags reads for the project.
In addition, Bechtel has tracked 1.2 million tag movements as material moves through the supply chain around Curtis Island and to its final destination.
“Without having an RFID solution, every one of those 1.2 million tag movements would have had to be manually recorded in the project databases,” says Edward Koch, automation specialist and software product manager for Bechtel. “Information latency would have been the norm.”
Koch says that without RFID, it could take up to 45 days to process an entire delivery of steel for part of the project. RFID reduced that time to 22 days. “That’s a real savings that you can obviously look at and understand in terms of labor and having the materials available at the workplace,” says Koch.