Harnessing RFID: A Sustainable Solution for Efficient Inventory and Supply Chain Management

By William Wappler and Thomas Strain

How tracking and management with RFID technology can unlock potential for sustainable supply chains.

For the past three years, supply chains have been under increased scrutiny because of significant operation delays and material-sourcing issues across industries. Even though conditions have eased in recent months, supply chain executives still face issues today that their predecessors did not face.

To meet the moment, manufacturers and suppliers must figure out how to sustain their business while also meeting corporate-mandated environmental sustainability goals. RFID tags and the software used to track them can help to serve both of those purposes if used properly.

Defining Sustainability

William Wappler and Thomas Strain

William Wappler (left) and Thomas Strain

In common parlance, sustainability is most often associated with meeting aspirational environmental goals encouraged by corporate executives, but those who work in the complex world of supply chain management understand it has an additional meaning. Business sustainability means being able to keep production lines running and having an idea of where your supplies are at any given time. Environmental sustainability means lowering the impact your products, transport and raw materials have on the environment.

In the first instance, it is hard to keep a business running without significant disruptions if supply chain managers can't keep accurate accounts about where their raw materials and products are at all times. Using Internet of Things (IoT) systems, which could include radio frequency identification (RFID) technology married with dashboards to visualize that data, can result in unprecedented visibility and certainty into a supply chain, which in turn can help to streamline how those products are shipped and stored.

Having that visibility not only keeps the business running smoothly but has add-on effects as companies try to reach their sustainability goals. Capturing the necessary asset-tracking data and having it delivered to decision-makers in real time are foundational to meeting both sets of sustainability goals.

Combining RFID with Sophisticated Software for Sustainability

While RFID technology is critical to keeping track of assets in the field, it can't promote sustainability by itself. Only by capturing and collating the information the RFID tags provide, using sophisticated software to examine the data at a granular level, can any progress be made toward measuring how sustainable your supply chain is.

As a company, you can't track everything. Finding a partner with the right software to integrate into your enterprise-wide management system is crucial and helps you determine what data will be most effective for your business. The goal is not only to take in information but analyze it according to your specific needs to understand your supply chain at a granular level. Once the tracking information is integrated into the larger data set, you can make operational changes as necessary to streamline your business. In doing so, you should be able to gain a better handle on the impact you are having on the environment—and lower your carbon footprint.

As environmental sustainability becomes more important up and down the supply chain, here are three things you can do immediately to have a positive effect on the environment.

Switch to Returnable Containers

Consider where multiuse and long-term-use reusable containers and packaging would benefit your supply chain. The hesitancy to move toward returnable packaging is understandable, as it requires a significant investment. In the past, companies switched from cardboard to returnable packaging without considering tracking solutions. Having to purchase $10 million in returnable containers yet having no visibility into where they are is a nonstarter for most organizations.

After making the decision to use returnable containers, deploy RFID technology to ensure you can keep track of them. This tracking can benefit all suppliers, no matter where they fall in the supply chain. Tracking returnable containers allows supply chain managers to quantify the return on investment, which in turn justifies the expense to the company. RFID technology helps you protect your investment and adds vital data to your operational overview.

Once the data is integrated with other factors—the number of trucks on the road, the distance traveled by those trucks, how much product is on each truck, among others— your IoT partner can help you make better, more informed decisions to protect your business while increasing environmental sustainability.

Share Best Practices

Create a community of RFID-savvy companies to share best practices to maximize the effectiveness of RFID technology and data-collection software. Most companies want to improve their environmental sustainability but struggle with deciding how to begin. There is a learning curve involved, and exchanging information with like-minded, noncompetitive companies can flatten the learning curve significantly.

Sustainability can no longer be siloed. It's critical to broaden the conversation to involve everyone. Expanding the number of people who can contribute ideas will sharpen the focus on what data will be necessary to make a significant impact. Information sharing among peers can help to bring about more efficiencies more rapidly, reducing a company's overall impact on the environment.

Cube Trucks More Efficiently

Finally, use the data you collect through RFID technology to cube your trucks more efficiently. No one benefits from sending trucks to facilities half full, so employing RFID tags and tracking software allows suppliers to cube their trucks as close to 100 percent as possible. Fuller trucks increase the efficiency of each trip, meaning fewer trucks on the road. When companies fill their trucks to maximum capacity and send fewer half-loaded trucks, it leads to a reduction in their carbon footprint by using less fuel overall and decreasing vehicle emissions.

Having the right information can provide actionable insights into how your company and its suppliers are operating. You will be able to see how many trucks you're sending each week and how full they are. Informed decisions can then be made about how to streamline the process to ensure the least environmental impact possible.

Bottom Line

To promote both business and environmental sustainability, data is key to bringing everything together. Being able to get the right information to the right people at the right time is crucial—but how you collect and use that information is even more valuable. Choosing the right software platform to track your products with RFID technology is critical to making sure you can navigate the supply chain, no matter what stresses are imposed on you. Once you have actionable data at your fingertips, your sustainability goals will start to feel within reach, making a positive impact more tangible and achievable.

William "Bill" Wappler is the CEO of Surgere, an industry pioneer leveraging IoT technology to revolutionize the supply chain. Bill has more than 20 years of experience directing and executing technology strategy growth for global and Fortune 500 companies, culminating with the presidency of a worldwide leading software company in California. Bill has a combined degree from Illinois State and the University of Illinois and an MBA degree from Northwestern University.

Thomas "Tom" Strain Surgere's VP of technology. Tom leads the company's technology organization to bring data-driven supply chain software solutions and platforms to market. Tom holds a MS degree in information technology from the Florida Institute of Technology and a BS degree in computer information systems from Saint Leo University.