It's tough finding a newspaper or magazine these days that does not have a radio-frequency identification (RFID) story embedded somewhere within its pages. Recently, I was reading an interesting article on the benefits of RFID tags embedded in packaging material, primarily for consumer packaging. Tags in the caps of pharmaceutical products, for example, even tags embedded in golf balls to cut down on arguments on the green. (No indication of who'll carry the scanner.) About midway through the story I realized how far ahead of the curve transport packaging is when it comes to practical applications of RFID.
Built-in RFID tags are not a new idea. Whether they will prove beneficial to consumers and consumer packaging is an interesting debate. Most of that debate, however, has been about all the scare stuff and the potential for spying. And while anything is possible (I say that because baseball spring training has started and hope springs eternal here in Cleveland at this time of the year), it's highly unlikely.
I think, however, the greatest potential for tags remains with transport packaging; obviously, not a new idea since that's, in fact, where most of the RFID action has been focused.
Maybe it's time to stop thinking of RFID in terms of consumer and supplier uses. The real benefits will accrue when the two are thought of as part of the same supply chain— which, of course, they are. The point here is that transport packaging's role is being (or can be) expanded to take on a leadership position in this RFID issue. And as it does expand, transport packaging will be viewed with greater importance.
What makes embedding tags in consumer packaging an intriguing concept for transport packaging is, as RFID experts frequently note, the sooner a tag is put into play, the greater its value and benefits. If the tags are embedded into consumer packaging, additional tags further along the line—say on containers or pallets—might not be necessary. Data pertaining to the shipment can be easily added or extracted on the fly. I have to hedge since the shipper or carrier might only be interested in the pallet or container, thus wanting to apply its own tag regardless of how many tags are already present.
One benefit for tagging early on in the shipping process is the opportunity to reduce human error. Once the tag is addressed, the information will flow with the product throughout the packing, palletizing and shipping processes. If the tag is present in the packaging material from the start, one more step can be removed from the process.
As RFID tag makers have been promising, tags are getting less expensive. They are capable of carrying more information all the time. The tag is becoming the link in the supply chain that connects the consumer to the manufacturer. At each scanning point along the supply chain, the same information is captured.
This, in effect, makes it easier to play the blame game, or at least more quickly locate the guilty party when something goes wrong.
So where is transport packaging on this continuum of embedded tags? Corrugated manufacturers are taking the initiative. Smurfit-Stone (Chicago) already offers a variety of products with tags embedded into its material. Other manufacturers such as MeadWestvaco (Stamford, Conn.), International Paper (Stamford, Conn.) and Georgia-Pacific ( Atlanta) are all bringing new products to market.
Interesting is a new line of products from BeamFetch (Taipei, Taiwan). It's developing container products with passive RFID tags embedded in reusable corrugated material. The products include a variety of box sizes as well as corrugated pallets.
It's been said, the greatest benefit of RFID tagging to the supply chain comes in the last 100 yards where things get bumpy. That's where data is most critical. Getting that tag in place and loaded with data within the first 100 yards could make the whole process flow more smoothly.