Most people don’t exercise enough, but some business managers do too much of the wrong exercises. Jumping to conclusions, chasing fads and marching in lockstep are their favorites. These are exercises in futility, and they’re all self-defeating.
A lot of these people also stretch their jaw muscles a lot, paying lip service to technology trends. For example, MHM has reported a lot on radio frequency identification (RFID) lately, specifically in regard to Wal-Mart’s challenge to its suppliers: the Top 100 will be expected to apply RFID tags to the pallet loads and cases shipped to Wal-Mart by January 2005, and all others will do so by the end of 2006.
Will that result in ship-shape supply chains by 2007? Probably not. Unfortunately, many suppliers will be running after RFID without putting this technology to work for them. They won’t even warm up and prepare themselves for this exercise. Don’t believe me? Ask consultant Jim Tompkins. That’s what I did when I visited him and the staff at his Orlando, Florida Technology Development Lab.
“By 2005 you'll see a lot of people taping RFID labels to their cases, just like they did with bar codes when they were new,” he told me. “Back then people put bar code labels on even if they weren't readable. The same will happen here. There will be people who know if they don't ship RFID-compliant to Wal-Mart they'll get fined, so they'll have Charley and Bob in the back room, taping an RFID label on that's never been read to the system and hope that it gets read when it gets to Wal-Mart so they're compliant. There won't be a benefit there.”
Elsewhere in this issue, contributing editor Bert Moore talks about the boring but beneficial bar code. You bring bar codes into the DC and you have a line of sight that makes reads pretty easy. And unless someone screwed up the print on the labels, you'll get good reads most of the time. Will RFID technology even work with your product or your environment? You need to research these things.
That’s the purpose of a facility like Tompkins’ — to help first-time technology users test and evaluate the stuff within their parameters. By debugging and proving technology in a lab environment, you can avoid the kind of wasted motion I mentioned earlier. And Tompkins isn’t the only one out there offering help. The need to change the way we apply technology is important at every level of the material handling continuum, from pallets to PCs.
Pallets? Consider CHEP’s innovation center — also in Orlando, coincidentally. Its premise is similar to the Tompkins lab in that it is designed to help customers evaluate the interaction of their products with material handling equipment and packaging throughout the supply chain. If you’re new to RFID, you can see how tag-equipped pallets holding your products are read by scanners under various conditions. (To read my Q/A with folks at the CHEP and Tompkins research labs, visit MHM’s web site at www.totalsupplychain.com and look for the news story titled “Research technology’s fit for you.”)
If you’re a Wal-Mart supplier, you may not have a choice but to adopt RFID. But Wal-Mart’s not alone in issuing technology marching orders. If you’re a drug manufacturer, the Food and Drug Administration wants you to start updating old, inefficient manufacturing processes. If you’re an international shipper, and you also source from overseas, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection will soon expect automated notification about the contents and recipients of cargo before it reaches the U.S. This is intended to give Customs more time to identify suspicious shipments.
Public health and vendor compliance are good reason to automate. But jumping on the technology bandwagon is not good exercise. You’ll be in better shape by getting in the driver’s seat and making it deliver for you first.
Tom Andel, chief editor