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Moving Toward the Talking Tag

When combined with a voice-directed work system, an RFID implementation can yield an immediate ROI.
By Tom Kerr, Elise Yoder and Larry Sweeney
Jun 18, 2007You can't pick up a supply chain journal today without reading about the monumental productivity advances promised by RFID. By allowing complete and accurate lifecycle-tracking of a product, analysts claim RFID will speed shipments, reduce errors and lower costs, more than justifying the expense of such systems.

Tom Kerr
The long list of potential benefits has attracted the attention of the entire supply chain industry. Driven by mandates from such retail giants as Wal-Mart and Target, vendors wishing to do business with mass merchandisers must become RFID-compliant. What's more, the U.S. Department of Defense now requires all suppliers to affix RFID tags to inbound shipments. An industry consortium of more than 600 manufacturers, retailers and solution providers is developing standards and promoting tools and services to drive worldwide adoption of the technology.

But far from clarifying the issues surrounding RFID, all this headline-grabbing attention has only served to muddy the waters—especially when it comes to the integration of RFID and voice-directed work systems. Talk to distribution center (DC) managers, and they'll say that while there is a sense of urgency to get going on RFID, there is also some concern that RFID will eventually replace the voice systems they've already implemented.

Elise Yoder
In reality, voice and RFID are complementary technologies that enhance the benefits each offers. Here's why: RFID tags can provide extensive information about products, such as product code, size, manufacturing date and expiration date. They can also be placed on locations (such as shelves and pallets) and containers (such as totes and trays), to help identify where an object is. But information alone does not make a business process more efficient. RFID systems don't tell DC team members what to do with their products or how to perform a task.

This is where voice-directed work comes in. In essence, voice creates a two-way dialogue between the DC team and the information management system. Instead of relying on paper lists or handheld device display screens to relay information for others to interpret and act upon, team members use a far more natural form of communication—two-way conversation—to perform daily assignments. This capability makes team members more productive, more accurate and safer as they move from task to task, whether operating with a stationary RFID reader or a body-worn device.

Larry Sweeney
On its own, RFID cannot tell team members what to do with products; similarly, voice, by itself, cannot extract detailed information about those products. But when companies combine the two technologies—creating the equivalent of a "talking tag"—they not only acquire the ability to direct product receiving, selection, replenishment and other operations; they also obtain automatic product identification and verification each step of the way.

Together, the potential productivity gains are staggering, because most distribution errors are the result of items being placed in the wrong location. With the combined capability of voice and RFID, a team member can be notified immediately if a given product contains the wrong items, or if it has expired or been recalled. This virtually eliminates the possibility of shipping incorrect or obsolete products.

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