Smart shelves...and cabinets

So-called smart packaging has been around for years, but what about “smart shelves”?

These are RFID-enabled shelving that permit item-level tracking at the store level to give retailers an electronic boost to help reduce out-of-stock products. Wal-Mart reported in 2005 that RFID used in a test helped reduce out-of-stocks by 16%. Extrapolated system wide, that’s a serious sales increase.

Several years earlier, the retailer considered testing smart shelves, but an outcry involving privacy issues caused the retailer to abruptly drop the development.

We noted in last month’s column that Best Buy is testing smart shelving for DVDs (see www.packworld.com/view-22679). Best Buy reported that the RFID system led to a 14% increase in DVD sales at that store. Vue Technology (www.vuetechnology.com), a part of MeadWestvaco, was involved in Best Buy’s implementation.

Other vendors involved in this kind of technology include AC Corp. (www.ac-corporation.com), Checkpoint Systems (www.checkpointsystems.com), and Dynasys (www.dyna-sys.com).

Consultant Tim Kueppers, who heads Sense ID Corp. (www.sense-id.com), sees use of smart shelves continuing.

However, Dynasys chief executive officer Bob Scher isn’t optimistic about their viability—he feels it’s impractical for any application other than tightly controlled applications with similar products. “There’s a lot of interest until a client finds out how much it costs,” he points out.

But he is a proponent of RFID technology deployed in a similar way for smart cabinets, which can be used to track valuable or sensitive inventory like controlled substances or medical devices. Scher’s company has been involved with about a dozen test projects over the past five years.

“The only way you can make smart shelves work effectively is if the products are very predictable in how they’re placed within the shelf or cabinet,” Scher explains. “They’ve got to be tagged a predictable way, and they’ve got to be stored in a predictable way.”

Scher says it can be done at high-frequency or ultra-high frequency, HF or UHF, 13.56 MHz or 915 MHz, respectively, though the latter must be near-field UHF.

One prototype that Dynasys developed was for orthopedic rods used in surgery. Installed in an operating room, the RFID smart cabinet housed various lengths of the packaged rods. When the surgeon called for the rods during surgery, three packs of various length rods could be removed and two that weren’t used could be returned to the cabinet and the inventory monitored in real time.

“They could keep track of inventory,” Scher says, “and though the client didn’t move forward, it worked great.” Scher believes smart shelves and cabinets will remain a niche opportunity.

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