RFID in the Supply Chain – A New Demand for Availability

Knowing where items are in your supply chain is crucial to maintaining an efficient manufacturing process, and anything that can improve and automate this process is always hailed as the “next big thing”. Radio Frequency Identification tagging, or RFID for short, is one of the technologies that organisations are evaluating with this in mind. According to analyst firm IDTechEx, the number of RFID tags being used during the last year was around 200 million, with high-value individual items being the most likely to be tagged. These can include electronic equipment, prescription drugs or jewelry, to give some examples.

Large retailers such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer have also started RFID projects, and the number of organisations who could benefit from using this technology is continuing to grow. The uses that RFID can be put to within manufacturing companies are impressive: it has the potential to offer a near real-time overview of where all the components or products within a supply chain are at all times.

Using data from their RFID tags, organisations can use this information to get a better insight into their manufacturing processes. Examples of how this information could be used include, monitoring the level of components compared to levels of completed goods for sale or demonstrating how all the stages of the manufacturing process are working.

However, there are two main areas of concern with implementing RFID projects: the first comes from customers who are concerned about RFID data security, as they don’t want to have information on their purchases available to other parties. To allay these concerns, all the information generated by an RFID project has to be stored within a secure database, and the tags should be rendered inoperable once the leave the domain of the manufacturer or supplier.

The second area of concern is that relying on a single powerful IT system in manufacturing exposes the organisation to the risk of IT downtime and data loss. The IT infrastructure responsible for the interrogation and writing of data to the tags has to be very dependable. The impact of losing a few minutes of transaction data can create a complicated inventory nightmare, requiring hours of manual work to correct. The new generation of shopfloor and supply chain applications require companies to re-evaluate the design and lifecycle management of their IT infrastructures.

Data is read from or written to RFID tags by either handheld or mounted interrogators placed at key points within the manufacturing process and in the supply chain. With the information from these tags becoming so valuable, assessing the availability of the critical applications that run on this data requires the entire IT infrastructure to be treated as an ecosystem. Some components are more sensitive to downtime than others but you will need the server, network, and RFID readers to all be working properly.

When considering the overall IT infrastructure, look for possible single points of failure in the system and plan to eliminate these as much as possible. This could be based on having fault-tolerant hardware in place to protect against a component failure, or putting a standard procedure into place to work around the problem. Close attention should be paid to the server infrastructure as a failure of the application or database servers will halt the entire system and therefore becomes a key part of the design of any implementation of RFID.

Industry legislation around the physical processes within industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturing also requires having continuous availability of data on manufacturing and delivery at all times, so data loss can result in an entire batch of product having to be reworked or scrapped. For organisations that don’t have the added incentive of legislation, there is still plenty to be concerned about when it comes to unreadable or erroneous tag data in your operations.

RFID-based supply and manufacturing solutions are being adopted to provide needed information and make dramatic improvements in product quality, timeliness, and security. Taking into consideration the impact these solutions will have on your IT infrastructure will help avoid adding unnecessary risk to your operations. Any project looking at the benefits of RFID within this should have the availability of the IT infrastructure as a key requirement before starting work.

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