Daily Archives: October 13, 2008

The Truth About RFID … as the doctor Sees It

I recently encountered yet another RFID article that took a look at how RFID will impact supply chain optimization and control and decided that I just can’t ignore the subject any longer. As you have probably guessed from that first sentence, I’m not a big RFID fan. It’s yet another technology that greatly over-promised and greatly under-delivered, and it did this for two reasons. ( 1 ) The promises were outlandish with respect to what the technology actually does and ( 2 ) the technology, by nature, is not as “plug and play” as the vocal proponents would have you believe.

RFID, which is short for Radio Frequency IDentification , is a method of “automatic identification” that relies on storing and remotely retrieving data using RFID tags or transponders. These tags generally contain an integrated circuit for radio-frequency signal processing and an antenna for signal receipt and transmission, however some tags are read-only and do not contain an integrated circuit for signal processing.

RFID proponents promote the use of RFID tags for supply chain use because they improve the quality of material location/movement data versus current data collection technology and this provides more accurate data delivered to existing ERP systems that drive supply chain optimization systems. As a result, forecasting, master production scheduling, and distribution resource planning can produce better, timelier and more granular outputs based on more accurate, near real-time inventory and/or material movement. In addition, RFID allows manufacturers to keep in contact with, or at least “hear” from, their material as it moves through the supply chain.

The idea is that since the tags can automatically be read by readers at each checkpoint in the supply chain, the data is immediately available for processing and immediate transmission to your systems. And even though real-time data is valuable, and the benefits of this real time data that RFID proponents promote are significant, the fact of the matter is this: you don’t need RFID to know where your goods are in a supply chain and when they hit a checkpoint. You can just as easily slap a plain-old fashion barcode on every box and get the same results. Of course, you’d need someone at each step of the supply chain to scan every box, but as long as the systems are properly configured, the data could still flow automatically up and down the chain. The advantages of RFID are efficiency and human-error reduction, and that’s it. It’s more efficient because, as long as the scanners are properly configured, and the goods properly passed through the scan points, the tags are automatically read for the whole pallet simultaneously. It’s less prone to human error, because, as long as the tag is properly attached to each box on the pallet, it will be read automatically at each point and you don’t have to worry about a human missing a barcode or two each time the pallet is supposed to be scanned in full.

Therefore, RFID is valuable if, and only if the savings that result from increased efficiencies and reduced human error outweigh the costs of its implementation, which not only include the up-front equipment and installation costs, but continued costs associated with maintenance and each and every RFID chip. But it’s not going to save you a fortune … its the systems that you buy to take advantage of that extra data and optimize your chain that are going to generate significant savings, and, as a I pointed out above, they don’t care if the data comes from an RFID chip, a scanned barcode, or, if you want to go back to basics, a human operator typing in a box or pallet number into a terminal that automatically propagates the data up and down the chain.

I guess what I’m saying is, before jumping on the RFID bandwagon, see it for what it is, talk to your industry peers about the increased efficiencies they saw, and do the TCO calculations before committing to it. For most operations, I doubt it’s the best thing you can do to save money.