A weekly series by UPI examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.
CHICAGO, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- A grocery store orders a case of potato chips, but the delivery man arrives with a carton of swizzle sticks. The mix-up in orders -- a commonplace in retailing and manufacturing today -- soon may be a thing of the past, wireless radio frequency identification technology, experts told United Press International.
"Getting the right products in the right boxes, and sending it all to the right location, is a lot more complicated than most people think," said Joe Zurawski, vice president of product development at Firstlogic Inc., of LaCrosse, Wis., an RFID developer. "When you put RFID into the mix, you can get the right information on the right pallet or cart, at the right time, and in the right quantity," he told UPI.
RFID tags -- small, wireless devices similar to the anti-theft tags common on store shelves in department stores, are replacing barcodes on boxes throughout the United States and Europe. The tags serve not only to identify the goods contained in the box, but also to help monitor the progress of their delivery, in real-time.
With the improvement in computer chip memory capacity, the tags also can serve as virtual databases in the field, giving a grocery clerk at Wal-Mart, or a trucker on the road, an instant update about the product's history, with a wireless reader, without having to log on to the Internet.
"There are industry mandates coming from large retailers, who want to see these RFID tags on the products delivered to their stores, by next year," said Muthukumar Natesan, practice leader for retail and consumer packaged goods at the Minneapolis office of Tata Consultancy Services, an $11.8 billion international IT services firm, headquartered in Mumbai, India. "That's what's giving the big push in the industry," Natesan told UPI. "That's what there is a lot of piloting and prototyping going on now."
Research by the German software giant, SAP, indicates that wireless RFID technology can reduce the labor costs incurred in checking goods for shipping errors, by 60 percent to 93 percent.
That could not only reduce delays in shipping, but it also may translate into lower costs for groceries for consumers.
Another study, last spring, by the computer analysis firm IDG Research Services Group of Framingham, Mass., indicated that the RFID industry is expected to grow from $1 billion today to about $3 billion in just four years.
Technologists say the tags accomplish what many had hoped barcode scanners could do during the late 1980s. RFIDs are easier to use -- and can store much more information than a barcode, Manuel Albers, director of business development at the Foxboro, Mass. office of the international semiconductor giant, Philips, told UPI.
"On a ship, or on a train or truck, a number of boxes go into a shipping container," Albers said. "If you put a number of boxes on a pallet, with RFID, you can identify them immediately. It's much easier and more feasible than scanning everything inside those containers with bar-code information."
Technologists are cautious about possible snafus, however, caused by misuse of the RFID tags. The potential for massive, systemic disruption is not without precedent in modern manufacturing and production.
"Back in the 1980s, (General Motors) introduced automation before they introduced total quality management," Zurawski said. "They wound up producing defective cars -- faster."
One of the problems that grocers, shippers and manufacturers are going to have to solve is emerging with a common language by which they identify each product that is picked, packed and shipped through their operations.
"The key challenge is getting the right information," Zurawski said. "Is the order on the right pallet or cart? Is it in the right quantity? Is it going to the right ship-to address? Is it even the right thing which was ordered? And so on and so forth."
Giant retailers are working to solve the problem by first instituting naming conventions that are in harmony with their suppliers.
"You have to have a consistency between trading partners," Zurawski said. "You have to have a table or a way to compare what the goods are that you are receiving from one company, and whether they are what you actually ordered. To do that, you will have to recognize product families, understand the sub-indexes for numbers that are used to identify those products, and make sure the system recognizes what you're trying to order."
Major IT developers, including IBM, Intel, Oracle, Retek, i2 Technologies, Retail Pro and others, are partnering with the National Retail Federation, and other trade groups, such as the Uniform Code Council, to solve these vexing data management problems. This includes the development of middleware software, which helps other software perform effectively.
The industry is moving quickly on these issues. An online trade show -- or Webinar, for Web seminar -- is planned for later this month, sponsored by the AIM Global, the trade association for the automatic identification and mobility industry, located in Warrendale, Pa. Experts there will discuss the selection, development and deployment of RFID tags, AIM Global said in a statement.
Gartner Inc., an IT consultancy in Boston, is predicting that by 2007, 50 percent of all RFID deployments will have failed, just as many ambitious customer relationship management projects failed in the 1990s, after initial enthusiasm by IT departments.
"You can't dig out from bad data," Zurawski said.
Costs also may be a barrier, in particular for smaller concerns. Each RFID tag can cost 30 cents to 50 cents, depending upon the application. That leads PSC Inc., a developer of barcode scanners and, now, electronic article security tags -- a form of RFIDs -- to posit that it may take as long as 10 years for the wireless technology to reform the grocery and shipping businesses. A spokeswoman for PSC tells UPI there will be a lengthy "transition period for full RFID adoption."
Another trend that may help retailers -- and shippers -- override the concerns about potential failure is coming from mandates from the federal government. The Department of Defense, and other government agencies, are requiring that RFID tags be placed on intercontinental containers, to make sure they have not been tampered with by terrorists, either through poison, or through a jihadist who has stowed away in a BMW being shipped from Germany.
"There are definitely security concerns," said Natesan. "RFID can be a form of protection."
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com