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RFID Key to Integrated Product Coding Architecture

Gary Page, US business development manager of Domino Printing Sciences' Integrated Solutions Group, argues in this article that organizations adopting RFID technology are realising the advantages presented by a more efficient product/asset traceability system.
May 03, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

May 3, 2006—The implementation of RFID technology is on the increase as the multitude of benefits it brings become apparent - particularly the improvements in product and asset traceability. The most powerful drivers have so far been the large retailers, particularly in the US, who have issued compliance mandates requiring their suppliers to implement RFID to both reduce numerous logistical costs and work towards the elimination of 'Out of Stock' situations.

As a global supplier of integrated coding systems, including RFID technologies, Domino is well-placed to observe international trends in RFID; and although the popular perception is that the financial gain from RFID is one-sided - in favour of the retailer - it is becoming increasingly clear that product manufacturers are discovering that they too gain enormously from RFID technology. As a result, there is an increase in 'closed loop' applications, where an organization employs RFID to improve its own internal asset tracking or work in progress flow (WIP). The automotive industry, for example, is increasingly using RFID to enable its 'Just In Time' manufacturing capability, and aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus, fierce competitors in a tough market, are collaborating to ensure the technology is adopted by their common parts suppliers.

In the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors, manufacturers see the technology's enormous potential to create of an 'electronic chain of custody'. By authenticating a product and tracking it from its basic raw material constituents through to a manufactured item, and subsequently to all points in the healthcare supply chain - right through to when it is dispensed to the patient - there is significant opportunity to improve patient safety and reduce counterfeiting of legitimate product. The gains may run into billions of dollars.

Ongoing developments RFID will quicken the pace of adoption in 2006. A new generation of UHF tag/reader configuration (Gen 2) is progressing from prototype to full production and related technology providers are continuing to make significant advances with their product and system capabilities. These developments have recently been reinforced by a sharp reduction in the cost of UHF Gen 2 specification tags - arguably a main point of contention with volume manufacturers looking to implement RFID technology.

Towards systems integration

These are the opportunities, but when it comes to evaluating and introducing RFID technology, the vast majority of manufacturers are still unclear as to how best to approach the subject. At first sight, the market presents a vast array of technology providers, each apparently promoting a specific part of the total system requirement; and since no single company owns all the technologies required, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a need for systems integration capabilities to combine the myriad of technology offerings into complete solutions.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that RFID typically represents only part of an organization's product/asset coding and traceability system; and that product tracking in particular generally has to incorporate some form of linear or non-linear bar code and human-readable alpha/numeric information. Rarely are these identification formats mutually exclusive, and this is certainly the case with emerging RFID technologies: increasingly the focus is turning towards the integration of RFID as part of an organization's total architecture to provide complete product/asset traceability.

There are an increasing number of examples in the pharmaceutical area where the drive for product serialization requires that multiple code formats co-exist in order to provide 100% identification guarantees.

A typical example involves the use of High Frequency RF tags (13.56Mhz) coded with a unique product ID (typically an EPC code), which is then transferred to a laser device which repeats the code within a two-dimensional format together with a degree of human-readable information. In addition, RF and machine-readable vision cameras verify code accuracy through a database controller, so that the product proceeds to a subsequent packaging station with both RFID and additional 'redundancy' fully provided.

Serialization then continues to further packaging stations where individual items are aggregated to secondary shipping containers, which typically receive UHF RFID tags and bar code data formats. Finally, cases are further aggregated onto pallets, where appropriate, for transfer to a warehouse environment and subsequent onward shipment through the supply chain.

Plan for the future from the start

While you may not anticipate needing a system as sophisticated as this, when planning for RFID implementation you should think ahead to how your use of the technology might develop.

In my experience, the majority of first-stage RFID installations are run as technology assessment pilots, where the management of code data is kept simple and the customer is presented with a relatively straightforward initial introduction. However, at this stage it is still important to start with an end goal in mind, even if it represents an intermediate stage leading towards full implementation. You need to consider an appropriate migration strategy, which means ensuring that first-stage applications incorporate the flexibility to escalate to higher production volumes.

Unless you get to grips with the variety of technology options on offer, you risk making costly mistakes. At the outset, you need to clearly identify the objectives of the programme and develop an appropriate scope of work before you embark on the introduction of coding and verification devices and supporting software. Spend time with your systems integrator: they will help you evaluate your requirements for an RFID-enabled solution and identify those important areas specific to supporting RFID technology within a supply chain environment.

This will involve assessing organizational implications before arriving at solutions based on the most appropriate technology available - preferably one based on an open platform approach to ensure that only the best-in-class solution is implemented. Once a suitable architecture has been defined, it will need project management to see the application through to successful installation, and a period of continuous evaluation where the use and effectiveness of RFID can be measured.

Automating RFID application

Whatever solution you decide on, a key consideration is how to incorporate RFID application in the most efficient and secure manner. Our experience at Domino is that the higher the volumes, the better it is for product codes - including RFID - to be applied at the point of manufacture. This helps to ensure that the process is automated, so reducing unnecessary cost, and extends traceability of the item right back to the point of origin.

Within the consumer packaged goods (CPG) context, most attention has so far been paid to the RF tagging of cases and pallets. Volume manufacturers may run outer carton lines at production speeds in excess of 50 cases a minute, with each carton potentially requiring an encoded tag, correlated barcode and human readable text - all checked and verified for accuracy and readability. There is no room for failed codes within a system designed to provide 100% accuracy.

There are a number of issues that need managing here, including the elimination of failed tags, and the ability to write to a tag and apply it to a carton at speed - all while ensuring that corresponding printed information is also transferred to the carton. A further major consideration is to ensure that the tag is placed in the 'optimum read position' on the case to guarantee successful reads without compromising the position of the barcodes (as required by the GS1 global standard).

At Domino we have developed a number of solutions to these issues which maximise performance while incorporating as much flexibility and as many cost-benefits as possible into the process. The solutions include tackling aspects such as the choice of tag architecture and design; where and how to place tags onto products; how to ensure the tags read successfully within the unique operating parameters of the distribution chain; how to provide an effective means of data integration through a WMS and ERP framework that will enable the value of the data (EPC and/or other formats) to be realised; and, importantly, how to integrate RFID codes with existing coding and validation platforms so that the organization achieves a single, co-ordinated, track-and trace-architecture.

Go global

So while RFID application is still new to most manufacturers, there is a growing recognition that it presents a remarkable opportunity to adopt standardised systems that allow real synergies to be developed across organizations. This is where real benefits will be realised - through common approaches on a global scale and a period of evolving best practice that drives operational efficiencies up and costs down, leading to better informed and more competitive organizations.

For further information please contact Gary Page, US Business Development Manager, Domino Integrated Solutions Group at Domino Amjet: GPage@dominoamjet.com.
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