By Patti Satterfield, Q4 Logistics
I was introduced to a bleeding edge technology called RFID in the early 1990's when industry journals were filled with the proposed benefits of another new RF data communication technology: spread spectrum. At the time, many users of narrow band RF doubted that anything could be better than their existing system. Here it is, over a decade later, and spread spectrum RF communications is a given in most warehouses I see and RFID technology seems to finally becoming a reality.
The Wal-Mart vendor mandate and recent announcement from the Defense Logistics Agency has provided the needed impetus to bring this technology from research labs into the warehouse. I have read many articles recently that discuss the cost of the tags, capabilities of the readers, and technical issues for the supporting network. I have read very few articles, however, that clearly spell out the systems issues concerning WMS (warehouse management systems.)
Unless your WMS is brand new, it is doubtful that you will escape purchasing bolt-on middleware or upgrading your current system to support RFID. The very benefits of RFID (large, fast moving volumes of data) are the very issues that must be addressed in your existing system.
Massive Amounts of Data
Here's the scenario: unlike bar code scanning, where items, cases, or pallets are scanned individually, RFID systems collect data on multiple items in a single scan with no distinction between item, case, or pallet. A middle layer of software is required to sort the data, and sift through it for exceptions – in real time. Furthermore, most warehousing environments (at least initially) will require a mixed use of bar code and RFID, thus the WMS needs to support a flexible means of data entry.
Data management issues could pose significant problems for clients of WMS vendors who have not been forward-thinking in their preparation for RFID. Today, there are a handful of Tier One WMS suppliers who have already added RFID support to their systems or have added a middleware offering.
So, what's a distribution professional to do?
Step One: Don't assume anything. Investigate your WMS vendor's level of R & D for RFID. If you work with one of the Tier One vendors, ask about their strategy for support. Chances are, you'll need to upgrade your existing WMS before implementing the middleware. Investigate whether or not the middleware supports both bar code and RFID data input simultaneously.
If your industry will be impacted in the next 2-3 years by the tidal wave of RFID, and your WMS vendor has not made RFID integration a priority, you need to evaluate alternatives. There are "bolt-on" packages available that can provide limited functionality, such as outbound compliance. These standalone systems are less costly in many cases; however, you need to consider their limited functionality and limited integration to other systems.
Balance RFID compliance with operational improvements
Step Two: Remember, this technology is "just" an enabler and fundamentally flawed processes will need to be addressed. RFID can dramatically change your ability to move and track items in the supply chain. Review your operations to understand how work flows and processes will change with the addition of RFID technology. Prepare your people for the transition by involving them in investigative efforts.
RFID does not require line of sight, as does bar code scanning. Thus, a pallet stacked high with cases on the shipping dock can be "scanned" into a trailer in a matter of seconds, with minimal or no human intervention. Read-write RFID tags, unlike bar coded license plates, can be appended with additional data as the item moves through the supply chain. For example, sortation, routing, and tracking information can be added to the tag throughout its supply chain journey. Imagine being able to sort products through a break bulk facility through the use of its attached tag alone, and not accessing a central database. Talk about productivity enhancement!
And in the end…
The future of RFID is riding on the success of initial pilots with several Wal-Mart vendors and leading WMS providers. Some measure of skepticism among the rest of us is certainly warranted. However, don't miss out on this opportunity to understand and evaluate what operational and systems changes you would need to respond to your largest customer should they follow Wal-Mart's lead.
About the author:
Patti Satterfield, Business Development Manager for Q4, has worked in the field of data collection and automation for warehousing for over 17 years. Before joining Q4, she was associated with other industry consulting and technology firms. She is a frequent presenter on technology at national associations such as CLM, WERC, Promat, NCOF, and Distribution/Computer Expo. To contact: [email protected]