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Altria, FedEx Stress Collaboration, Standards

Altria's Jim Noble said the company has its eyes on item-level tagging. He and FedEx's Kevin Humphries stressed the need for technology standards to enable widely deployed RFID applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Tags: Standards
May 02, 2006"We're all aiming at the wrong targets, and we're moving at a glacial speed." Those words of warning were offered by Jim Noble, group vice president and CIO of Altria, at RFID Journal LIVE!'s opening keynote session, Monday evening at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. The name 'Altria' might not ring a bell to some, but the many consumer brands the company owns certainly would, among them Marlboro, Kraft, Maxwell House and Nabisco.

The 'wrong targets' Noble referred to are EPC tags and RFID interrogators, or RFID-tagged products. The right target, he explained, is collaborative commerce. He believes the excuses he hears, about the many years it will take RFID to evolve, hold no water.
"People will tell you conventional wisdom is that this stuff will take a long time to evolve," he said. "I totally disagree. My point of view is that we're already way behind in implementation [of RFID], and we need to pick up the pace dramatically."

Jim Noble
Altria has been studying how it might use RFID to improve its supply chain and logistics operations. Noble reported that as far as his company is concerned, RFID's value is in using item-level tagging to track everything from cartons of cigarettes to jars of mayonnaise. Still, Altria won't deploy RFID at the item level without the collaboration of its supply chain partners. "We can't do this ourselves," Noble told the audience. "I have 6,000 people in my IT team, so there isn't a lot we can't do ourselves, but on this occasion, we're just a link in the chain and we can't make the chain work without all of our business partners willingly engaging."

Noble said Altria would consume 80 billion tags a year if it deployed RFID corporation-wide for item-level tracking. Just to get started with item-level tagging, however, the company and its supply chain partners would first need to lay a tremendous amount of groundwork around the data synchronization of numbering systems between Altria and its trading partners, as well as an agreement among the suppliers and retailers regarding technology standards.

Noble was joined in the keynote by Kevin Humphries, senior vice president of information technology for FedEx, who spoke about the ways in which the shipping company is already using RFID. Humphries also addressed the significant value RFID could provide in tracking parcels.

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