Supply chain automation could be severely affected if radio-based product identity tags are not made uniform, says a UK-based standards specialist.
John Greaves of European standards body EAN says every manufacturer of RFID (radio-frequency identifier devices) markers on goods - and the readers to sense them - uses a different frequency and protocol. This tends to lock users in to the same manufacturer, he says, and has a powerful impact on the effectiveness and economics of supply chain automation.
RFID devices mark many goods internationally during manufacture and distribution. They consist of a microchip less than 2mm across with attached antenna wires a centimetre or two long, mounted in a label. As with a visual barcode it identifies the consignment as it moves through the supply chain, in this case by emitting a radio signal. Unlike a barcode, the RFID can be read at a distance, requiring no human intervention or slowing of the flow of goods.
When retailers standardise on RFID devices from different suppliers for the same goods, the manufacturer has to split its inventory into different categories. The retailer also needs readers to cope with each different code. “The book industry has one of the longest standing standard identifiers, the ISBN number,” says Greaves. “But [libraries using RFID] have to read one of four different formats; then they convert the data from each one into the ISBN number.”
There are also substantial risks of the data being unreadable at any point and breaking the whole chain as a supply-chain extends from manufacturers through distributors, using different RFID readers.
EAN, best known for its standard barcode system, is collaborating with its US counterpart UCC on a standard for the frequency and protocol used in RFID markers. This is known as the Global Tag (Gtag) initiative. Greaves claims Gtag has had commitment from as many as 80% of RFID manufacturers. As well as supply-chain efficiency, standardisation offers the user assurance against “buying the Betamax”, says Greaves – getting locked into a version of the technology with no future.
He suggests manufacturers are more interested in “selling silicon” than in contributing to efficient supply-chain operation. So the Gtag format has been pitched to them as a billion-dollar chip market “instead of a million-dollar niche market”.
There are as yet no users of RFID in the supply chain in New Zealand, says local EAN representative Raman Chhima. Ports of Auckland IT manager Roger Fogo says the technology "has promise, particularly as the price of tags comes down". But any venture into it from New Zealand would have to be cautious. "It's really most relevant when you've got two ports with a very busy route between them, or if it's very high-value cargo," he says.