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RFID-enabled reusable plastic containers (RPCs) will be used to shore up the 1귔-mile supply chain between IBM’s Integrated Supply Chain (ISC) operations in Montpellier, France, and Dublin, Ireland.

The Montpellier operations provide server components and miscellaneous supplies packed in the RPCs to Dublin. From Dublin, the servers are assembled for shipment to customers worldwide.

The Montpellier to Dublin, distribution-center-to-distribution-center route is, at its fastest, a 36-hour trip, according to Thierry Mottaz, server engineering, quality & customer support manager of IBM’s ISC. Although volumes aren’t large, the supply chain’s link is absolutely crucial for IBM’s ISC, Mottaz emphasizes. Mottaz felt it made sense to implement RFID tagging as a track-and-trace solution for the RPCs the company was already using.

IBM maintains a pool of 200 heavy-duty RPCs, which are 3’x4’x3’ plastic bins with collapsible sides.

IBM is currently implementing Phase 1 of three phases for the program. Launched in 2004, Phase 1 is to RFID-enable the first leg of the supply chain in Montpellier. IBM developed a lab scale system as a proof of concept that is scalable to the manufacturing level. In this pilot phase, IBM is using passive RFID Class 1 tags from Rafsec. The software is IBM’s own WebSphere RFID Premises Server middleware customized by IBM personnel.

The next part of Phase 1 is to determine the specific location of the RFID tag on the RPC so that it can be read repeatedly through a fixed antenna portal. Mottaz expects the RFID tag to be applied to an external corner of the RPC.

“For the longer term solution for Phase 2 and 3, we will need a more rugged RFID tag,” he says. “In the final version, the tag will be embedded into some kind of casing to protect it.”

After fine-tuning of the portal in the lab in IBM’s Paris facility, it will be relocated to Montpellier during 2Q 2005. Phase 1 is planned to run through summer 2005.

Phase 2, Mottaz explains, will involve deploying at the Montpellier site the final tags, final equipment for readers and antennas set up at key reading points/gates. Phase 3 will be to duplicate the setup in Ireland. Says Mottaz, “we want to be completely successful at Montpellier before we deploy in Dublin.”

“With RFID, we can have real-time inventory,” Mottaz says. “We want to be able to know the status of our inventory instantly.”

We asked Mottaz what IBM has learned thus far. “I can say it works!” he enthuses. “There is huge enthusiasm with RFID. With this project we are pioneering something unique that will change the future of supply chain logistics. RFID will enable the way we do business on-demand.”

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