Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 17 March 2012

RFID - A Really Fine IDea

There's a technology that's been bouncing around in commerce for some time now that should change the way we work and play in the near future, assuming an even better technology doesn't leapfrog it.

RFID, Radio Frequency Identification, has been used to track pallet loads of goods from the warehouse to the supermarket for some years with some of the bigger corporations (manufacturers and supermarket chains).  To the likes of Wal-Mart or their UK subsidiary, Asda, it's convenient to measure stock by the pallet load, so that's been a useful way for them to evaluate and shake down the technology.

However the logical next step is to embed the RFID tags, which are increasingly compact and cheap to produce, into every can of beans, bottle of ketchup and plasma TV set in the store.  The advantages of this next step are obvious: implemented correctly we should be able to to have our shopping basket scanned and priced in seconds without having to remove it from the trolley - OK, with current technology levels that might involve microwaving a few chickens in the process, but the challenge is far from insurmountable.  Apart from the time saved it also means that us shoppers can pack our trolleys in the way we want, ready for loading into the car, as we shop.

But there are other, less obvious advantages.  Stock levels, currently monitored very closely at the point of sale, can be monitored even closer - the point of sale method is notoriously poor at accounting for shrinkage, the industry euphemism for theft.  This should mean better stock control, less disappointed shoppers when their favourite product sells out and could lead to a Just in Time (JIT) approach to retail.

I want to see if the process can be extended further, though.  One of the most fascinating advances in modern manufacturing is the ability to track a product from raw material through to leaving the factory.  In advanced processes it is possible to tell which tree, which animal, which mineral mine was used to make up the raw materials, to determine when the component parts were put together and every step taken in the process.  So when you return a faulty product, some manufacturers can work out literally when it was made, packaged, shipped as well when the raw materials were produced.

So if you capture that information in the RFID tag at packaging stage then you will realise more benefits.  Essentially the RFID tag would be a two part tag - one part identifying the product in the same way a bar code does now, the second uniquely identifying the individual item.  One advantage of this is that supermarkets would be able to rotate stock intelligently, identifying items approaching the 'best before' date effortlessly.  It would also make anti-theft methods more effective as they could detect cans of beans and the odd plasma TV being taken out of the store without a sale entry in the store electronic ledger.  A bad day for shoplifters but a good one for the majority of us who have to subsidise these losses whether we want to or not.

But let's not stop at the store.  Put the technology in your fridge, your cupboards, your garage storage - you know, the place where cars used to be kept.  Link it all to your home network, set minimum and maximum stock levels, create a few rules and bingo, your weekly shopping list created on the fly, ready for you to ping it to your favourite store. Or ready for a savvy Internet application to search out the most cost effective way to shop for what you need by comparing the prices in all the major stores automatically, perhaps even booking home delivery slots around your home timetable.

And when you've filled up with beans, ready meals and the odd alcoholic beverage, the RFIDs could help with the sorting for recycling.  Increasingly local councils are under pressure to ensure greater and greater amounts of material is appropriately collected for recyling, now here is a way to measure, regulate and manage it.  And in the meantime it allows those of us who have struggled with a food container to decide which recycling bag it goes in.  It could also be used to incentivise the whole process, providing a way to give credits to consumers who recycle the most effectively.

But the biggest advantage, now we've fitted RFID scanners in our fridge, cupboards, garage, dustbins etc is that each and every time we can't find our keys, we just have to access the software on the netbook and voila - there they are!  If only I could find the netbook....


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