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RFID tags becoming easier to read

On the other hand, return on investment for packagers will remain invisible for the near term. Now Wal-Mart softens stance on deadlines.

Packagers scrambling to understand the implementation pitfalls of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags had all sorts of stories to tell at RFID2004 Conference in Washington, DC, on June 10. When his turn at the lectern came, Howard Stockdale, the data processing director at Beaver Street Fisheries, Jacksonville, FL, drew many laughs when he explained his mystification when the exact same RFID tags scanned better on boxes of snapper than they did on boxes of grouper. He hypothesized that grouper retains more moisture than snapper.

Simon Langford, seated next to Stockdale on the dais in the Reagan International Trade Center, guffawed as hard as anyone. Langford is director of Global RFID at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, AR, the U.S. retail colossus that has almost single-handedly forced U.S. packaged-goods manufacturers to undergo a crash course in RFID technology and implementation.

Wal-Mart has asked its top 100 suppliers to have RFID tags on all product cases shipped into Texas as of January 2005.

Wal-Mart understands

But Langford, in a British accent which hasn’t been eroded by five years in Arkansas, was very eager to get the word out that Wal-Mart understands the problems faced by Beaver Street Fisheries and others, and is willing to ease its requirement when conditions permit.

He complained that the media had misinterpreted Wal-Mart’s original intentions and has taken signs of recent accommodations as an indication that Wal-Mart is “backing off” its schedule.

“We never said all cases and pallets coming into Texas,” Langford emphasized. “We asked our suppliers ‘What is viable for you?’” For some suppliers—a company that is instituting a new warehouse management system, for example—it won’t make sense for them to go live on January 1, 2005, Langford said.

“We are all about collaboration,” was the cooperative theme he kept hammering on like a carpenter.

Nonetheless, Langford disclosed that he would be meeting with Wal-Mart’s next 200 largest suppliers the following week to brief them on an implementation schedule for them, which he declined to disclose. He emphasized, however, “We will expand to additional suppliers in 2005 and 2006.”

Langford and Stockdale were joined on the dais by Greg Edds, product manager for global supply chain operations at Hewlett-Packard Corp., Palo Alto, CA, and Mike O’Shea, director of corporate auto ID/RFID strategy at Kimberly-Clark Corp., Dallas, TX. Both companies were among the 100 suppliers identified by Wal-Mart to be subject to the January 2005 Texas deadline.

But Stockdale of Beaver Street Fisheries said that he had asked to be one of the 33 “volunteer companies” who had opted into the group because of the opportunities his company sees as inherent in RFID tags. “We see the global supply chain changing at an unprecedented rate,” said the RFID implementation manager of the $500 million per year company, which also markets meat.

Nonetheless, Stockdale admitted that his company won’t see a positive return on its investment in tags and readers for at least a year or two.

Keeping customers happy

That was one of the key messages coming out of the conference: Return on investment for packagers implementing RFID tagging is somewhere off in the future. Rather, their motivation is to satisfy their customers—Wal-Mart and others such as Target and Albertson’s that have announced their own RFID mandates.

“The typical retailer loses four percent of sales because of out-of-stock product,” Langford said, explaining part of the retailer’s rationale for RFID. “Imagine what one to two percent could do to your profit.”

But while Wal-Mart will recover sales from reducing out-of-stock conditions to balance out its costs, that won’t be true for packagers, at least in the near term. That is because the passive Class 0 and Class 1 RFID tags (they use different protocols and frequencies) and readers that are available right now are extremely limited in their network functionality—and expensive to boot.

So most companies have been forced to adopt what is called a “Slap and Ship” (S&S) approach. There is virtually no possibility, because of data and network limitations, for the tagging company to get a return on investment. And once implemented, the tags and readers may become quickly outdated, given the lightning speed with which technology is moving.

For example, Langford kept referring to Generation2 tags, which will use a higher UHF radio frequency and, perhaps more important, be acceptable internationally, which the current tags are not.

Tag some or all?

One executive of a fruit packing company, which sells into both the food service/institutional market and to retailers as well, said he had been told that a S&S approach would cost 20¢ to 50¢ per case depending on volume. His company produces 20 million-plus packages a year, which are shipped on half a million pallets. He wasn’t sure how many cases that translated into. He said that he would probably use S&S on cases for all customers, rather than just for customers that are demanding them.

Everyone expects the price of RFID tags to decline. Langford noted that one tag supplier was writing into its contract with buyers that the price of the tags would be below 5¢ per by the fourth quarter of 2006.

The price is going to have to come down substantially below that, though, for product manufacturers such as HP to realize the ultimate benefit of RFID technology, which will come from tagging individual packages in order to reap the benefits of theft and counterfeiting prevention.

Item tagging benefits

“Everyone is looking for the next level, item tagging,” admitted Edds, who said all HP business units are implementing RFID tagging at some manufacturing locations. “There is a whole new level of opportunity when we do that. that will drive the magnitude of implementation.” That will be particularly true for ink cartridges, he explained, which often disappear from store shelves in the pockets of thieves.

But Langford predicted that item level tagging is 10-15 years away. “For chewing gum and bottled water to be tagged, the cost of the tag has to be less than 1¢ per tag,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to get [to that price] using silicon. We will probably have to put printed circuits on tags.” But he did say that Wal-Mart might “cherry-pick” some “high-value, high-theft” products for near-term package-level tagging.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is more concerned with helping its suppliers figure out how to get Class 0 or Class 1 tags on cases. Moisture in liquid packaged products and metal packaging has caused problems for some RFID tag antennas, and not just in cases of grouper.

Listening to Stockdale of Beaver Street relate his problems with the grouper tags, and having to contend with cases of seafood stored at temperatures of -30°F, O’Shea of Kimberly-Clark nodded knowingly. “The best place to put a tag might not be on the outside of a case,” he said. “The interior wall of the case or inside the flap might be better.”

K-C found that it had trouble reading tags on the outside of cases when those cases were stacked on pallets in such a way that the case butted up against the metal of a forklift. K-C has a laboratory in which it tests RFID technology. “We make that lab as dirty as possible,” noted O’Shea. There are all sorts of electromagnetic energy sources that can limit readability of tags. “We even found the steel rebar in the foundation of our floor was causing a problem,” he explained.

But Langford answered that new “agile” readers are removing that obstacle. Six months ago, for example, Wal-Mart was able to read only 30% of the tags on cases of consumer liquid soap because of the moisture in the product. “Agile readers now allow us to read 100 percent of the tags,” he explained. “That was a big wow.”

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