It was nearly 10 years ago when the initial hype of item-level tracking enabled by RFID began to emerge across retail and other consumer and industrial focused supply chains. The vision for the ability to connect the physical and digital aspects of the supply chain was within grasp and the hype cycle was extensive. Our readers might recall Wal-Mart’s highly visible corporate initiative for mandating RFID-enabled tracking across its supply chain as well as the U.S. Department of Defense efforts to do the same. But something happened, namely learning that seems to be rather consistent with advanced technology initiatives.
In the early days of RFID, there were challenges involved with the economic cost of individual RFID tags. Recall the threshold number of tags eventually costing less than 5 cents each. The IT infrastructure of required mobile and fixed readers, antennae, and database systems was more expensive than vendors were communicating. Industry-wide consistent information transfer standards development was elusive because either technology vendors continued to advocate for certain proprietary standards, hoping to cash in on the new technology wave, or specific industry groups themselves favored certain standards.
It is therefore very noteworthy to reflect on results of a recent survey conducted by GS1’s US Apparel and General Merchandise Initiative. For those unfamiliar, GS1 is a global information standards based organization that fosters trading-partner collaboration through adoption of global-wide consistent item numbering and identification electronic information exchange. Keep in-mind that apparel and merchandise supply chains operate on narrowest of product margins, with cost, inventory and shrinkage being prime challenges. Apparel and general merchandise was one of the prime targets of the early RFID mandates.
Last week the organization released the results of a 2014 survey providing indicators for how apparel and general merchandise manufacturers and retailers are utilizing item level Electronic Product Code (EPC) enabled RFID tracking. That survey indicates that nearly half of the manufacturers surveyed now indicating that they are currently implementing RFID, with a further 21 percent planning to implement within the next 12 months.
Of the retailers surveyed by GS1, more than half reported current implementation efforts underway with another 19 percent planning to implement in the next 12 months. Retail respondents indicated that on average, 47 percent of items received in their supply chains have RFID tags. In the news release, an Auburn University researcher indicates that retailers are garnering greater than 95 percent inventory accuracy, decreased out-of-stocks, increased margins and expedited returns. That phrase should sound familiar since it was the original declared benefits of the prior mandate efforts.
In the current clock-speed cadence of business where results are measured and expected in weeks and short months, 10 years is a lifetime. Yet, that it what was required for the technology maturity and economics of RFID item-tracking to reach what appears to be the dawn of mainstream adoption. This GS1 survey announcement should be viewed in that light.
For RFID enabled item-tracking, the early innovators have paved the way of learning and economics, as well as what worked and what did not. We at Supply Chain Matters have already brought to light the next wave of item-level tracking, sensor tags that can monitor the composition, state and movement of products across the global supply chain utilizing today’s mobile technologies and near-field communications (NFC). These tags will eventually provide for use cases in supply chain settings requiring higher levels of monitoring and detailed visibility such as fresh foods, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and others.
What is ever more important is that as a community, we learn from previous technology adoption curves where elements of business process adoption, standards and cost-effective technology all interplay. One obvious conclusion is that supplier mandates for technology implementation will not work if these elements have not been realistically evaluated.
Beyond all the hype are the inherent realities. Advanced technology does provide meaningful business benefits when applied to well-understood business process needs, challenges and cost factors. Technology adoption is not driven by vendor product marketing but by business education, process maturity, people and process realities.
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