RFID Moves Out of the Lab

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID labs, the packaging special interest group presented the first version of an electromagnetic simulation and visualization tool and a prototype energy detection and tag emulation tool for use in pilots and operations using radio frequency identification (RFID) systems. Members of the Auto-ID group had begun using the tools to benefit, said Dr. Rich Fletcher, research manager for the group. The Auto-ID packaging group is trying to assist end users and suppliers who are preparing to meet RFID requirements at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Albertsons and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Though it didn't make a public announcement, Wal-Mart officials said the mass retailer would begin field tests of RFID at one of its three Dallas-area distribution centers (DCs) in late April. The DCs have been fitted with RFID readers at shipping and receiving docks to scan tagged pallets and cases as then enter and leave the DC. A handful of suppliers were scheduled to participate in the early field test. A broader test is slated to begin in June.

Wal-Mart established a January 2005 deadline for its top 100 suppliers to begin tagging product at the pallet or carton level. When the initiative was announced, 37 additional suppliers stepped forward and volunteered to meet the requirement to ship tagged product to Wal-Mart's Dallas-area DCs starting in January 2005. To date, Wal-Mart has spoken with 110 of the suppliers involved with the first stage of its RFID initiative. Of that group, only two have said they would have difficulty meeting the deadline and, said a Wal-Mart official, it was not for technology reasons.

Wal-Mart established its own lab at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. to test the technology and provide guidelines for its suppliers. It has also assigned an individual to work with each supplier on the RFID initiative. The company said its requirement was not prescriptive - it would not tell suppliers which products to use. It had, however, tested various technologies and products before arriving at its standard.

Wal-Mart has been working closely with EPC-Global, a standards organization that is helping to develop and promote global standards for the electronic product code. The retailer established its standard based on work done by EPC-Global and will roll out its requirement to an expanded group of suppliers effective January 2006. The company had not decided the size of the second group, a decision that will likely reflect their experience in current field tests. The field test beginning in June is expected to be a phase in to the January 2005 deadline and will gradually cease to be a field test and simply become the implementation, said a company spokesman. Wal-Mart is "extremely optimistic" about meeting the January date.

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