Wal-Mart comes down under to boost RFID fan club

Recognising that technological innovation can drive business process change, Wal-Mart proudly takes responsibility for bringing RFID-tagged goods to the masses.

By placing mandates on its top 100 suppliers to be RFID-ready by 2005, Wal-Mart has become the poster child of this new and emerging technology.

Speaking at the European Article Number (EAN) Impetus conference in Melbourne last week, Wal-Mart's RFID international director Tony Taylor, said the mandate will benefit suppliers and manufacturers by forcing them to look internally at their business processes and become more efficient.

"I would question any business that comes along and says it is totally efficient and has no room for more efficiencies," Taylor said.

"Wherever there is human intervention in the business you have an opportunity for waste and error and all manufacturers have humans involved in the process; what the RFID tags do is automate and ease the supply chain process even more."

When RFID first emerged, Taylor said everyone agreed it was great technology but it required "somebody to get off the fence and do something about it".

The development of RFID began with Auto-ID Lab which is a global network of university-based researchers, including the University of Adelaide, developing applications for global commerce.

The conference also featured the launch of the Australian Electronic Product Code (EPC) global network, a joint venture between EAN International and the Uniform Code Council, to drive the adoption of RFID standards.

VeriSign and EAN have partnered to launch the EPCglobal Network EPC Starter Service in Australia to allow businesses to conduct pilot projects using RFID prior to full supply chain rollouts.

VeriSign managing director Gregg Rowley expects the Starter Service to generate plenty of interest in the enterprise. He described RFID as one of the most highly anticipated technological revolutions to emerge in the past decade.

Gillette is also an early leader in the adoption of RFID and the company's supply chain vice president Dick Cantwell told delegates that EPC adoption isn't about the technology, but what it can enable an organization to do.

Gillette is trialling tags to reduce the number of out-of-stock goods on retail shelves, a serious problem that suppliers are keen to address.

"Out-of-stock goods are a problem for manufacturers and retailers alike but most of all the result is that the consumer leaves the store frustrated. It is a possibility that the store staff don't know when shelves are empty or even worse - they know the shelves are empty but they can't find the product in the back room to re-stock," he said.

Fiona Wilson, EAN Australia standards development general manager, said generation-two products, which include readers, tags and middleware, will be available locally early next year.

Wilson said technical specs for these products are still being verified to ensure reading devices don't create bandwidth problems.

Trials to date are being done with 918MHz readers at a power of one watt; however, companies that apply for a specific licence can trial 4W readers.

"As yet there are no mandates in Australia so there is the luxury of being in control and doing things properly," Wilson said.

"Some companies can apply for a site licence and operate trials at 4W provided they have the approved site licence but most companies in Australia would have pilot programs using 1W."

Michael Crawford attended the conference as a guest of EAN Australia

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