RFID Makes Waves at DC Expo

June 1, 2003
Radio frequency identification was a hot-button topic at the recent Distribution/Computer Expo in Chicago. Here's the latest on that technology as well as warehouse software.

It’s helpful to remember how bar coding was adopted when thinking about this new RFID technology, said Gregory Cronin, president and CEO of TrendStar Inc. — the second largest buyer of RFID tags after the U.S. government. The standards for bar codes were tied up with industry groups, agencies and consultants, but it took the development of a breakthrough, multi-code scanning gun by Symbol Technologies to make bar coding really work.

Cronin said he believes there is common ground on the new ISO 18000/18001 standard for RFID communications and protocols, but he thought that it will take some practical use by industry to make RFID prevalent.

TrendStar couldn’t wait for industry standards, so it developed its own communications standard and applied it to the tracking of millions of beer kegs in the United Kingdom. “We financed the high cost of millions of RFID tags, many scanners and the kegs by having customers pay us back on a per-use basis for all our value-added services,” says Cronin. His company purchases returnable container systems used by several companies within an industry and pools the containers to reduce overall transportation costs, while adding RFID to track containers. Cronin attended the show to look for companies with large U.S. fleets of returnable containers or retail cages in hopes of negotiate deals with several competing firms in an industry based on pooling returnable containers.

New technology, new engineering

The engineering of RFID is completely different. With bar coding you need line-of-sight and sufficient lighting, and scanning typically involves workers. With RFID, there is no worker intervention needed, and scanners can be located in the ceiling or at the door. “And with RFID you can read and write. This means that anyone can scan the tag and not need to access some database or be hooked to some network,” said Cronin.

But there is a drawback in high-metal environments that limits the read range of scanners. In metal environments, special engineering is needed to position antennas. In scanning beer kegs, TrendStar has come a long way in the past 18 months. The firm went from scanning one keg at three to six inches away to scanning a layer of kegs three to five feet away. This is due to marked improvements in antennas, tags and scanners.

“There is unprecedented investment and excitement about RFID right now. I predict that in the next two years RFID will overcome all its difficulties and become the most prevalent technology in data capture.

New applications drive innovation

Scott Rishel, vice president, business development for irista said “RFID will be driven by the channel masters, just as EDI compliance was driven by the Wal-Marts, the Targets and Procter & Gambles of the world. They’ll force compliance downstream.”

Paul Schweet, vice president of sales for Unified Barcode and RFID Inc. was approached at DC Expo by several potential customers with application ideas.

--A Wisconsin amusement park company asked about RFID wristbands to which a child’s name, a parent’s name and cell phone number could be written. “In case a child gets lost, a park worker can scan the wristband and call the parent.”

--Another idea was selling tokens for park rides. A parkgoer could pay so much for rides, with the amount written to the wristband. The band is decremented for each attraction that is ridden.

--There was a logistics application for refrigerated trucks. When the trucks come and go from a plant, the managers track when the truck left, track the truck’s whereabouts with GPS and again log the truck in on return.

“We spoke to a major pharmacy store retailer about tracking its international inbound containers with RFID tags. They had a problem of losing track of containers once they’d been unloaded,” said Schweet. Another application idea at the show was with a major household utensil and container manufacturer who wanted to apply an RFID tag to each finished product. ‘The company needed faster scanning than a conventional bar code system. They had to actually slow their production conveyor down to read the bar codes on the product.”

A grocery store chain wanted to put the RFID tags on each piece of product on a shelf in the store. When the product is taken off the shelf, the shelf inventory is automatically decremented. Scanners at the checkout line automatically total the amount. “Their goal was to automatically debit your checking account through a special account you’d set up with the store with no interaction with workers and that requires no money exchange,” added Schweet.

He said that many of these ideas haven’t been implemented because of the cost of tags which range today from 35 to 95 cents apiece. A year and a half ago, the cost was about $2.50 per tag. “Cost is keeping the grocery store application on the shelf, although we’re discussing the international shipping container tracking system with the retailer right now,” said Schweet.

Unified Barcode has developed its own multi-protocol reader. It reads the top five RFID manufacturers’ chips.

RFID solves problems

Intermec showed a new, four antenna RFID reader that is available at two frequencies. Timothy Thul, industrial business development manager for Intermec reported that current buyers are using the technology for security access for parking lots, in tracking returnable containers and at the Canadian and Mexican borders for tracking individual workers and registered cars. RFID tags are solving problems for returnable container systems. “There used to be a bickering contest between the manufacturer or distributor and the customer as to how many containers were issued. These RFID tags eliminate any confusion,” said Thul.

Still, Intermec indicated the cost of tags can be an issue. The typical cost for tags for returnable containers is from $1 to $2. “But customized tags that need to be more durable and survive sterilizing washes and caustic baths can cost from $20 to $25 per tag. Price is application specific,” said James Peternel, software technical lead for Intermec.

Peternel said the automotive industry has been a major advocate of RFID technology, for example in tracing engine blocks through the manufacturing process. “There are also discussions on moving RFID to the air bag assembly line and to tracking tires to the VIN number of the vehicle as it’s assembled,” added Peternel.

Intermec maintains that the difference between its kind of tag and those of its competitors, including Matrics, Alien and SCS, is that Intermec offers 128 bites of memory. “We lock the first 12 bites at the factory. That allows you bite 13 to 127 to read and write random access data,” said Peternel.

RFID in retail distribution

John Pulling, vice president and COO of Provia Software says his company is implementing RFID for Gillette North America’s seven distribution centers. Gillette’s long term goal is to identify each retail shelf pack, every case and every pallet through the supply chain. “We’re working at the case and pallet level in their warehouses now,” says Pulling.

The overall goal of Gillette’s RFID project is to reduce inventory shrinkage in the supply chain and to make product available on retail shelves. “In order for product to make it to the retail shelf, the WMS must support and gather data for use downstream, so WMS is a core component for making RFID systems work,” said Pulling.

The Auto ID Center is working with Gillette on a “smart shelf” for retail so that product can be sensed as it’s removed from the retail shelf. From an anti-theft perspective, the shelf can determine when too much product is being removed too rapidly from the shelf. If the behavior doesn’t look like purchasing, then store security cameras can check out what’s going on to determine if it’s suspicious behavior or not.

Gillette is using application program interface specifications, communication standards and open systems software called Savant — developed by the Auto ID Center. Provia says that Gillette is banking that Savant will become the new standard. “I expect that Savant will be the basis for the standard that Wal-Mart will adopt,” said Pulling.

Provia pointed out that RFID readers fitted to picking vehicles can improve orderpicking accuracy and product quantity. It removes the need for double-checking stations later and verifies right at pick location.

Automatic truckloading is another good application. “You take a palletload, scan it onto the truck and verify that all cases were shipped without the need to line-of-sight bar code scan. This speeds up the loading process significantly,” said Pulling.

With kit building and postphoned light assembly in warehouses, RFID can replace lots of manual scanning of individual items and kits that go into a box. “We’re able to manage the assembly process and read at the end of the line all the lot numbers and serial numbers that were put into any one assembly,” he added.

Adopting RFID

Pulling thinks that RFID will be adopted first by consumer packaged goods companies that ship to big retailers like WalMart and Target. He said that there are lot of third-party logistics and industrial applications too, but that retail will be first.

Chris Heim, president and CEO of HighJump Software says his company has performed some research and development on RFID. “The cost of tags is the big hurdle, and technology issues will limit early growth. Now is the time to think about RFID pilot projects,” said Heim.

Heim guessed correctly that the Wal-Mart 2005 goal for RFID will be at the pallet level, not the item level. “When Wal-Mart required bar codes, there was a time delay from the required date and the date that Wal-Mart was actually using bar codes on palletloads. It may be the same for RFID,” he added.

When it comes to 3PLs, Annette Glo-ver, account executive for LogiMax, a 3PL WMS vendor, said that the cost of RFID technology, the cost of tagging all warehouse locations and rewarehousing a facility is cost prohibitive for her customers. “On the pallet tracking end, the majority of our 3PLs don’t have enough pallets returned to their stock to recycle RFID tags. This makes RFID for 3PLs cost prohibitive,” she observed.

And the up-and-down economy has a role to play in the speed of adoption of new technology. Marc Wulfraat, partner with KOM International had this to say about DC Expo: “This year’s show was better than last year’s. There are more attendees and signs that spending is beginning to increase. The economy has come out of the bottom of the valley and will slowly, and I emphasize slowly, improve over the next 12 months. I don’t see any dramatic increase in sales for the technology vendors on display at the show or for others that specialize in the supply chain logistics arena,” said Wulfraat.

More News from DC Expo

Other important news at the show included Manhattan Associates’ buying ReturnCentral, a leading pro-vider of reverse supply chain software. Through this acquisition, Manhattan will expand its reverse logistics capabilities to provide end-to-end returns management. That includes inbound returns management, returns processing and outbound returns management. In particular, Manhattan will offer:

--A return policy rules engine that adds visibility to your established returns rules;

--Decision support for return-to-stock, liquidate and scrap inventory routing to automate stock routing based on item quality and volumes;

--Automated, semi-automated and manual return merchandise authorizations (RMAs) to allow the creation of advanced shipping notifications (ASNs);

--A drag-and-drop software configurations for easy use.

Irista announced new logistics software for manufacturing operations — its Production Logistics software. New features have been added to the iristaWarehouse 8.4 WMS software to address material flow within manufacturing operations. When integrated with the iristaTransport software, the two software packages create a Production Logistics suite that manages inbound logistics including transportation routing, routing of raw material deliveries, and the management and tracking of goods throughout the production/manufacturing process.

The iristaWarehouse WMS receives work orders from an ERP or production planning system and schedules and accurately routes raw material at the right time to the correct manufacturing or assembly line.

“Your readers need to take a look at their manufacturing operations and envision how WMS and TMS can work on the inbound side, versus only the distribution side. A lot of the benefits of WMS and TMS can be applied to manufacturing,” says Scott Rishel, vice president, business development for irista.

Lilly Software had this take on the software market at DC Expo: “Most new software interest is in the ERP or enterprise side, yet they’re looking for both ERP and WMS. Companies aren’t buying yet; they’re still in the exploration phase. Companies are looking to replace a variety of software with one integrated, enterprise package that includes both manufacturing and/or distribution,” said Joel Stachowski, senior account manager, distribution for Lilly Software Associates.

Unified Bar Code and RFID’s SkyeRead M1 is a 13.56MHz RFID reader and writer. It is a multi-protocol device that can read and write most industry-standard 13.56MHz tags and smart labels. Use it to quickly add RFID technology to your new systems. It integrates easily with label printers, handheld data terminals, bar code scanners and more.

Psion Teklogix introduced the Model 7535 hand held terminal. It offers multiple scanner options in 1D and 2D scans, a long-range reading capability, fuzzy logic, a CMOS imager and dual-laser or RFID operation. It uses the Windows CE.Net operating system and offers a 5-wire touch screen display that is 10 times more durable than conventional 4-wire touch screens. Its keys are very difficult to damage and are rated at 1 million cycles.

Best Software highlighted Version 6.3 MAS 500 software to be announced this fall that monitors the performance of vendors in your supply chain in terms of reducing vendor cycle times as well as cycle time deviation and variability. You can capture information like whether goods were shipped with improper labeling or packaging, if the vendor sent an unauthorized substitute item or if the goods were damaged in shipping. A new purchase order vendor performance report calculates things like on-time delivery, accurate order fulfillment and cost variances among other features.

Intermec Technologies showed the Intellitag fixed readers and modules that operate at 915 and 2450 MHz. These RFID readers have four antenna ports for flexible deployment of RFID across multiple portals or conveyor assemblies. The readers have custom-configurable serial interfaces for connection to programmable logic controller equipment as well as RS 232 or RS 422 serial port connections. The reader and module are ready for integration into retail operations, industrial manufacturing and logistics applications.

Knapp Software Division showed a Web-enabled WMS that automatically translates into several languages including Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and English. The software is JAVA-based. “We’ve moved our software out of the U.S. and into Latin America with the Spanish and Portuguese languages. The JAVA supports all of these languages so that you can run in multiple languages simultaneously,” said Richard Meremonte, general manger for Knapp. JAVA also allows the software to run on AS400, Unix, Microsoft, etc. and talk to any relational database.

There’s a new module from Ann Arbor Computer for the i-Series Suite within PCaim called iWork. “iWork looks at waves of orders and work to the done in the warehouse and compares it to engineered standards or actual standards developed from activity within the warehouse. It gives the warehouse manager an idea of the time it will take to process orders based on available manpower,” says Art Fleischer, sales and marketing manager for the WMS group of Ann Arbor.

Craig Welch, WMS product manager for SK Daifuku described how the Data Dr. software tracks individual worker productivity so that workers can be measured against individual goals when using a variety of material handling equipment, including carousels, RF-directed orderpicking, pick-to-light and other automation.


Late-Breaking RFID News

At the June Retail Systems Show, Wal-Mart announced that it would require its top 100 suppliers to install RFID tags on palletloads by 2005. (For more on the Wal-Mart announcement, see the Retail Systems Conference Report on page 15.) This announcement and its anticipation has sparked a flurry of new RFID products and services. Here are the latest announcements made known to MHM:

--Manhattan Associates has jointly developed with Alien Technology Corporation “RFID in a Box” for retailers. It is a bundled package of RFID technology from Alien and supply chain execution software and professional services from Manhattan. It will let users realize immediate RFID benefits like real-time inventory control, faster return on investment and improved efficiency. The system includes RFID readers with two antennas per reader as well as a fixed number of RFID tags to label and track goods. Suppliers will be able to remotely generate RFID tags and apply them to goods. It will also include remote Electronic Product Code (EPC) printers to generate the RFID tags. Services include three months of help in covering pilot to proof-of-concept as well as help in documenting a business case.

--A strategic partnership was joined between Alien and Manhattan to more closely align the two companies’ RFID initiatives in software, service and chip technology.

--Manhattan’s intends to deliver its RFID Middleware software and RFID hardware to integrate with third-party supply chain software packages, including Manhattan’s SCE software. By delivering complete integration between existing WMS and RFID technology, this service will decrease the time and labor associated with RFID projects. This will be available in the third quarter of 2003.

--Intermec introduced Intellitag Ready-to-Go Retail RFID. It is an integrated package of hardware, software and professional services designed to give retail suppliers everything they need to develop a pilot application for RFID pallet and case tracking, including Intellitag RFID tags and readers. The Intellitag’s read/write capability allows information about the goods to be updated as they make their way through the supply chain. For more on this program, phone 800 934-3163 and reference #9214.

--Announced was the Intellitag RFID On-Line Assessment Tool from Intermec. It helps companies determine if RFID is an appropriate addition to their automatic ID operations in a particular industry. It helps evaluate bar code use and effectiveness and any upcoming mandated compliance in a company’s shipping or labeling practices as well as the value of assets being tracked. For more on this tool, visit www.intermec.com/rfid-assessment/.

--Intermec introduced RFID Consulting and Professional Services designed for companies needing an assessment, coordination and installation of RFID technology. To schedule an assessment, e-mail to [email protected] or phone 800 934-3163.

--A new RFID reader for handheld, mobile computers was announced. Intermec now offers an Intellitag IP3 RFID handle reader for its Series 700 computers. It can read and write to RFID tags. Look to see the accessory this December.


Alien Technology Corp.; www.alientechnology.com

Best Software; www.bestsoftware.com

Intermec Technologies Corp.; www.intermec.com

irista; www.irista.com.

Knapp Software Div.; www.knappsoftware.com

LogiMax; www.e-logimax.com.

Manhattan Associates; www.manh.com

Provia Software; www.provia.com

Psion Teklogix; www.psionteklogix.com

Quantronix; www.cubiscan.com

Unified Bar Code and RFID, Inc.; www.unifiedbarcode.com

Products from DC Expo


RIMS-3PL Billing helps track transactions required for billing clients in multi-client warehouses. The software allows you to set up the rules by customer, type of service and billing period. After the invoice is generated, you still have the option to fine-tune it manually to account for any unusual or one-time charges. Some billing options include:

- Storage: pallets in and out, split-month billing, anniversary billing, dedicated space, cubic space used;

- Activity: kitting and assembly, pallets or cartons received shipped or moved. Also announced was the Version 5.0 of the RIMS WMS. It offers a RIMS Tool Kit which is a screen and field configuration tool that allows the user to change field lengths, re-label fields, hide unused fields and take advantage of user-defined fields. It includes the 3PL billing module, an enhanced kitting module with Bill of Material support and more sophisticated cartonization algorithms used by customers in fulfillment operations. Robocom Systems Intl. Inc., www.robocom.com


The Tunnel Reader Programmers are designed to read randomly positioned RF tags on high-speed conveyor belt systems. The readers and tags provide high-speed read and write to multiple tagged items in industrial environments, including baggage and postal sorter. Smaller Batch readers are available to read large quantities of tags with zero separation between tags. The tags can be read at up to 1,000 feet/minute. This item arrived outside of DC Expo. Magellan Technology. www.mag-tech.com.au


The EASYpick Voice system frees workers from paper lists and terminal screens, providing clear and concise voice commands via wireless Ethernet. The system uses a wearable computer, headset and voice recognition software. It uses a full-screen text display on the computer that mirrors all voice commands to help confirm, and it eliminates ear fatigue that can happen after extended picking sessions. Real Time Solutions, FKI Logistex. www.picktolight.com.


The LogiMation Module is new for paperless warehousing. This software uses RF devices and offers time and labor standards. It optimizes product consolidation and rotation based on item and location rules, among other features. Also offered is third-party logistics software for refrigerated and dry environments.

Annette Glover, account executive for LogiMax says the software tasks, order prioritizes and uses performance standards that you engineer yourself. Based on build time for the order, the software directs labor and equipment resources to the right work order to make order fulfillment most efficient. LogiMax. www.e-logimax.com


Available from Tompkins Associates is “The Realities of Implementing a Warehouse Management System.” The paper lists 10 common mistakes and offers solutions for each. Go to www.tompkinsinc.com/publications/competitive_edge/articles/06-03-WMS_Implementation.asp.


The SuppliLink 2.0 software is real-time inventory management software that initiates replenishments. It alerts you to when inventory is low with e-mails links to vendors in the supply chain as well as internal notification. The software is useful for subcontract manufacturers in the automotive and healthcare industries. Visible Inventory. www.visibleinventory.com.


Witron introduced the Ergonomic Shuttle Picking System (E-SPS) which brings cases to the worker. The worker rides on a picking cabin which travels horizontally on rails in an aisle surrounded by rack locations. The cabin is raised to the right location for picking and the palletload is raised or lowered by the system to the optimum, ergonomic height for the worker so there is no bending or stooping with cartons. Installed sensors automatically adjust to the height of the order and of the picker. The system is installed in Europe. Witron, www.witron.com