Mhlnews 655 Fooledbytools02 00

Data Intelligence: Don't Be Fooled by Tools

Nov. 1, 2005
"Until you're aware of the possibilities, you can't begin to see how they can work for you or your company."

Despite all the brightest hopes and darkest fears about RFID's potential to do good or ill, it's simply a tool like any other. Yes, it's new and sexy and all the rage but it's still just a tool. Like bar codes. Like WiFi. Like mobile computers. Like ERP or WMS software.

Alone, none of these tools will do much to improve efficiency or your bottom line.

An ERP program that's fed incorrect data will return incorrect material projections. Databases that can't accept bar code or RFID data can't accurately maintain inventory records. Mobile computers that can't integrate with host software are just fancy clipboards (at best). You get the idea.

What makes a system efficient (or workable at all) is the fact that it is a system. In other words, it's made up of a number of different components—or tools—that work together and complement each other.

A bar code or RFID label has to be read into an appropriate database and contribute to the overall knowledge about a process or activity to be useful. That data also needs to feed other software components in order to communicate with other departments' applications as well as trading partners' systems. Otherwise, these labels don't even make good boat anchors.

It's not just a matter of software, however. It's a matter of using the total system to provide solutions and not trying to rely on a single tool for the total solution.

Here are two real examples.

A foodstuffs manufacturer is applying EPC RFID labels to each carton of a particular product. The foodstuffs are liquid based and the containers have metal lids. This is challenging enough with these two rather antagonistic materials for UHF RFID. Nonetheless, the manufacturer has identified an inlay and label placement solution that works (yes, it can be done).

Now, as the pallet is built, with as many as 64 cartons on the pallet, an RFID reader reads each tag. Then the pallet is stretch wrapped and a pallet RFID tag is applied.

Wow, great stuff. Except.... The manufacturer then wants to read every carton tag on the pallet to verify that the pallet is actually complete.


With 64 cartons on the pallet (assuming a 4x4x4 configuration), at least eight cartons are "inside" cartons (it's more like 16 since they have no "sides" exposed). Reading them will be problematic (at best).

The question is not how to read these " inside" cartons, the question is, "Why bother?"

Another example. In the much publicized Purdue Pharma LP trial applying RFID "pedigree" tags to its OxyContin product, each of 48 individual vials in a box has an RFID tag. Once the box is filled, each tag inside the box is read to verify its contents. At present, the box stops in a read enclosure for upwards of five seconds to accomplish this. Hardly production line speed.

Again, the question is not how to speed up reading of the 48 tags, the question is, "Why?"

In both these cases, companies are trying to use a single tool as the complete solution whereas they should rely on a system for the solution.

Consider: for the food product, each carton is read as it goes onto the pallet. The pallet can then be weighed and cubed to ensure that there are indeed 64 cartons on it. In the event of an exception, a janitor can be sent to clean up the mess resulting from a carton falling off.

For the OxyContin application, the same logic applies. Read the vial as it goes into the box. Seal the box. Weigh the box with a weight-in-motion scale. In this scenario, the system also ensures that each vial is filled correctly—and all at production speed.

The lesson here should be obvious. Don't get so enamored of a new tool (not just RFID) that you forget that it's supposed to be part of a system—one that you probably already have substantially in place. You'll not only save yourself a great deal of grief and aggravation in implementing your solution, you'll probably save a few bucks as well.

"Until you're aware of the possibilities, you can't begin to see how they can work for you or your company."

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