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Lab-Powered Innovation

Kimberly-Clark uses its 5,000-square-foot dirty lab to develop and test RFID solutions before rollout.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 01, 2005—It's a typical day in Kimberly-Clark's radio frequency identification lab in Neenah, Wis. In one corner of the 5,000-square-foot lab, an intern is upgrading the firmware in an Alien Technology interrogator mounted on a Lantech stretch-wrap machine. Over by the 270-foot loop conveyor, an employee is working with another intern to test the read rates of the first batch of RFID tags based on EPCglobal's second-generation Electronic Product Code standard. A third intern is mounting another Alien reader on a portal.

In a conference room built above two small offices in the lab, there's a plaque commemorating the first time an EPC tag was read in a live, open supply chain system. It was read on April 13, 2004, at Wal-Mart's distribution center in Sanger, Texas, and it was on one of K-C's cases of Scott paper towels. "We've chosen to lead," says Mike O'Shea, director of Auto-ID sensing technologies for K-C. "That's why we made the investment in this lab. It's enabled us to develop the intellectual property that put us in that position."

Mike O'Shea, director of Auto-ID Sensing Technologies.

K-C won't reveal how much it has invested in the state-of-the-art lab, which is used by more than a dozen full-time employees and several college student interns. It has some 125 different pieces of RFID hardware purchased from a wide variety of vendors. The lab's permanent equipment includes a dock door portal, warehouse racks, the stretch-wrapper and the loop conveyor, which can move as many as 150 small cases of product at 200, 250 and 600 feet per minute.

It might seem surprising that K-C is putting so much time, money and effort into developing expertise in a technology that many people believe holds no value for manufacturers of consumer goods, but the company sees benefits from RFID where others don't. "We're really focused on driving value for our customers, shoppers and users," says Cheryl Perkins, senior vice president and chief technical officer. "In the short term, the focus is on customers—our retail partners—and in the longer term, it's on shoppers and users."

K-C wants to use RFID in the short term to improve efficiencies in the supply chain and become an "indispensable partner" with its retail customers. "We truly believe that there is an opportunity to partner with our customers to improve things such as out-of-stocks," says Perkins, "and we want to be a partner of choice. We are really trying to exploit what RFID can do to deliver those solutions."

In the longer term, K-C hopes to leverage what it learns over the next few years to improve its own internal operations as the cost of tags comes down and the technology can be pushed further back in its operations. Perkins says that the company is looking at ways to use RFID as a smart device to add value to its products for the millions of people who buy them. She declines to go into detail, saying concepts being looked at now are proprietary and will be patented.

Kimberly-Clark became interested in RFID back in 2000. O'Shea, who was then the head of the North American logistical alliances department, started exploring RFID's potential to improve the company's distribution operation. At the same time, Perkins was looking at potential disruptive technologies, including RFID. In late 2001, the two joined forces and O'Shea went to work for Perkins. His first tasks: build a team to investigate how RFID could benefit K-C, and create a lab where the team could experiment with the technology.

K-C's first lab was "clean"—a lab in an office building in Neenah where environmental conditions were controlled. The company quickly learned that solutions developed under near-ideal conditions performed miserably in warehouses, where there is a lot of electromagnetic interference. So in 2003, K-C decided to create the dirty lab to ensure that solutions designed in the lab would work in the real world.

The lab mimics the conditions of K-C's warehouses and manufacturing facilities. It's situated between two factories—one makes diapers, the other training pants—each with large machines that generate electromagnetic interference. Forklifts in the manufacturing facility use wireless terminals operating at 915 MHz, which interfere with the RFID interrogators.

"Thus far, the lab has been proved to be very effective in mimicking real-life conditions," says Perkins. "Once we got to the dirty environment, we have been able to see good accuracy and precision based on what we were trying to mimic there."
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