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Gillette Sharpens Its Edge

Dick Cantwell is overseeing a major RFID project at one of Gillette's distribution centers. The goal: foster a new culture of innovation to achieve dramatic efficiencies within the supply chain.
By Mark Roberti
Apr 01, 2004—For a little more than 100 years, The Gillette Company has been famous for top-quality products and world-class marketing. The company’s brands—Mach3 and Venus razors, Right Guard antiperspirant, Duracell batteries, Oral-B toothbrushes and Braun appliances, to name a few—are among the best known in the world. But Gillette hasn’t been noted for being in the vanguard of technology innovators within its operations—until now. The company has staked out a leadership position in the use of RFID, specifically the Electronic Product Code (EPC) developed by the Auto-ID Center.

In January 2003, Gillette ordered 500 million Class 1 EPC tags from Alien Technology, a startup working with the Auto-ID Center. It was the largest RFID order ever placed. Gillette is using the tags in one of the biggest EPC project to date, tagging all pallets and cases of its Venus women’s razors. The company’s goal: To understand how EPC technology can be used to achieve “breakthrough” benefits in its supply chain operations.

Gillette’s position at the forefront of the EPC movement is somewhat unusual, concedes Dick Cantwell, the vice president who has been heading Gillette’s RFID efforts for the past five years. “It’s always easier to look in the rearview mirror to see how things were done in the past or to stand back and watch how others have solved a problem,” he says. “In the case of EPC technology, we’re in a pioneering position, and we have to have a vision of the future and work back from that point.”

The company’s interest in EPC technology stems from a problem that is caused, ironically, by the success of its brands. Gillette razors, batteries and toothbrushes are so popular that the company, which puts 11 billion items into the retail supply chain annually, has a hard time delivering replenishments to retail customers precisely when they need them and, just as important, making sure that those orders are accurate and arrive where they should in the quantity requested.

Gillette’s problem is not unique. Manufacturers and retailers worldwide face the same issues. The truth is that the supply chain is not as reliable as it needs to be. Every year, billions of dollars are lost because products aren’t shipped on time or in the right quantities. Sometimes the wrong products are shipped or the shipments get accidentally misdirected. On occasion, shipments get miscounted or miscoded on the receiving end. Sometimes the loss is created by theft, which can occur at any point in the supply chain.

In the late 1990s, Gillette began looking for a way to get better information about where its goods were in the supply chain so the company could ensure products were always where they were supposed to be and could better meet demand. Gillette became a founding sponsor of the Auto-ID Center, which was set up to develop the EPC Network, a low-cost RFID system designed to let companies track goods in open supply chains.

Gillette’s Cantwell became the chairman of the Auto-ID Center’s board of overseers, a key role that put him in a position to influence the development of the new technology. Cantwell is tall, handsome and soft-spoken. But behind his mild manner is a shrewd businessman who knows how to get things done, says a former senior executive of the Auto-ID Center who worked closely with Cantwell.
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