Automotive Groups Agree on RFID Guidelines for RTIs

By Claire Swedberg

The multinational Joint Automotive Industry Forum is about to release a set of requirements and recommendations for implementing RFID technology to track returnable transport items—the reusable containers used by that sector.

After five years spent discussing, writing and editing, research members of the global Joint Automotive Industry Forum (JAIF) will soon release RFID guidelines for returnable transport items (RTIs), such as containers, pallets and other reusable assets, used to transport parts and assemblies through the automotive supply chain. This is being done in an effort to address the lack of an international standard to ensure container visibility between supply chain members, which often leads to lost containers and delayed production.

JAIF is an international organization created by four automotive associations: the United States' Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), Europe's Odette International Ltd., the Japan Automotive Manufacturers Association (JAMA) and the Japan Auto Parts Industries Association (JAPIA).

The group was conceived in Stuttgart, Germany, at a 2005 meeting of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), recalls Patrick King, a global electronic specialist for Michelin. At that time, King was discussing with VDA members the need for a global automotive standard for tracking returnable assets by sharing data. "At the time, RTIs were all closed-loop," he says, meaning that only the RTIs' owners could track the locations of containers and similar assets. Bar-coded labels, he adds, were predominantly in use, rather than RFID tags. The group's first project was the development of the "Global Guideline for Returnable Transport (RTI) Identification," which will be published later this month. JAMA and JAPIA led the effort and wrote the initial document, while all organizations participated in discussions and provided editing.

The 100-page document spells out rules for storing data on RFID tags so that it can be shared among multiple parties in the automotive supply chain throughout the world, says Bill Hoffman, the chair of AIAG's RFID Work Group and the founder and managing director of RFID and bar-code software and integration firm Hoffman Systems. As part of the guideline-development project, the group carried out a study to prove the feasibility of encoding multiple types of data on a single tag in order to enable, for example, a parts manufacturer to encode information to it, while allowing a distributor or automotive manufacturer to write additional data on a separate section of that tag (see Automotive Project Shows a Single RFID Tag Can Carry Data Encoded by Multiple Users).

JAIF's guideline takes the data-storage recommendations a step further, by stipulating which kinds of RFID technology can be used—EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags—as well as which printed identification media (such as labels printed with linear bar codes, or QR and Data Matrix 2-D bar codes) should used in conjunction with RFID tags for returnable transport items, in order to ensure multiple participants in a supply chain have the ability to use the data to identify each tagged RTI.

Before the group began developing the guideline, it conducted a survey in late 2005 to gain an understanding of how many companies in the automotive industry were using RFID, along with the obstacles faced by non-adopters. The survey found that the cost of inefficiency in tracking the locations of RTIs in the supply chain included operational downtime due to a loss of loose packing material and a shortage of containers, as well as the cost of replacing missing containers. What's more, the survey noted that a lack of return-on-investment (ROI) justification and a dearth of industry-wide standards were two major obstacles to RFID's adoption.

The group's main objective, says Morris Brown, AIAG's program manager for supply chain management, was to establish a set of rules that could be employed by automotive manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, in order to share RTI data. "You've got to have something for people to go on before they can adopt the technology," he says. "Hopefully, people will use the guideline as they look into the technology on a pilot basis." Already, he notes, many manufacturers and suppliers are piloting RFID systems in closed-loop scenarios. But with JAIF's guidelines, he indicates, developing pilots between several supply chain partners should be easier, since the document spells out a tag's technical requirements, in addition to how data is to be stored on that tag. "Hopefully, with the guideline, we will see greater RFID adoption," Brown says. "That's the ultimate goal."

The guideline specifies, for example, the data structure of an RTI's Unique Item Identifier (UII), and stipulates that the UII have a maximum of 35 characters (or up to 50 characters, if agreed upon between trading partners), consisting of uppercase alphabetic letters (A through Z) or numeric digits (0 through 9). It also includes the issuing agency code (IAC), consisting of one to three characters used to identify the tag-issuing organization (such as Odette), as well as a company identification number and a serial number. In addition, the guideline dictates how data is encoded and stored on "complex tags" (those that can be encoded repeatedly with data beyond a unique identifier).

Moreover, tags must comply with the UHF Gen 2 ISO 18000-6C air-interface standard, and should remain on the RTI throughout its life. "Reusing a tag after reprogramming it is feasible without compromising the supply chain data structure," the guideline states. "Whether to reuse or recycle should be determined based on the cost of the tag and environmental implications for reuse/recycling."

Data, in addition to the UII number, is to be stored in distinct memory banks on the RFID tag. The guideline further indicates the manner in which information related to hazardous material is to be encoded on the tag, as well as optional data that users might want to share with others in the supply chain. Additionally, it recommends that as backup, each RTI should have media supporting "human-readable interpretation (HRI)," such as labels printed with text that conveys critical information. The RFID tags must have a minimum read accuracy of 99.998 percent, allowing only two incorrect readings within a total of 100,000. Use of encryption for security is necessary only if required by the tag users. Finally, the guideline recommends that RTIs, RF tags and RF label inlays be printed with at least one internationally accepted RFID emblem.

"What we've done is create a tool," Hoffman says, "that has been accepted by all the automotive standards bodies." King adds: "This guideline establishes that organizations that were [working] unilaterally have now clearly indicated an interest in communication and harmonization. That's a big deal."

Michelin has been using bar codes on its own returnable assets, King says, but the guideline's establishment has piqued the company's interest. He declines, however, to reveal whether any pilots were planned as a result.

At the end of this month, the participating agencies' Web sites plan to make the document publicly available as a download for a fee (the amount has yet to be determined, but is expected to be nominal). JAIF members are now working to create a similar set of recommendations and requirements for item-level tagging within the automotive sector, though the release of such a document is not expected for several years. In the meantime, King says, JAIF will also consider increasing its global communication with automotive companies in other regions of the world. In the future, he notes, a large percentage of automotive manufacturing is expected to be conducted in China and India, and in parallel, a large percentage of automotive consumers will be in those countries as well. "With that landscape in mind," King states, "shoring up the organization to engage with other parts of the world is critical."