Steve Sellentin has little sympathy for consumer goods manufacturers chafing under RFID mandates from giant retailers like Wal-Mart. For them, compliance is a snap, he says. You just tag a dozen or so items and the customer goes away happy. Sellentin's customers aren't so easily satisfied. He fully expects that his company will be required to tag as many as 50,000 products by the end of the year.
Sellentin is vice president of sales at Government Scientific Source (GSS), the largest dedicated distributor of scientific equipment and supplies to federal, state and municipal laboratories as well as the Department of Defense (DOD). Like all DOD suppliers, GSS has been required to affix RFID tags to all DOD-bound shipments since Jan. 1 (although the government is still not ready to receive tagged shipments). That requirement is likely to expand before long. GSS expects to receive notices from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and the Navy any day now requesting that he begin sending them RFID-tagged shipments. (For now, only cases and pallets will require tags, although the government is examining item-level tagging as well.)
When the government does pull the trigger, GSS will be ready. "We're just waiting for them to push the button," says Sellentin, who is using Gen 2 equipment and tags purchased from Symbol Technologies for 35 cents apiece. Sellentin estimates that up to 25 percent of GSS's shipping volume could be affected in the beginning. Eventually, up to 80 percent of its products—everything from cloth ing to food and medicine to lab equip ment and supplies—may fall under the requirement if the practice spreads to agencies like the Department of Energy, which is examining how it can best use RFID.
It's probably safe to say that GSS's RFID compliance program is unprecedented in its scope. In fact, some consider it to be the largest tagging venture by a single company to date. GSS carries 1.2 million different products—items ranging from commodity supplies like latex gloves to million-dollar pieces of robotic equipment. Sooner or later, all of them will require RFID smart tags. "We're tagging everything from 50-cent test tubes and vials to plate readers and weapons of mass destruction," says integrity and the product [would Delayed gratification Sellentin.
What has made the job particularly challenging is the nature of some of the products GSS ships. For example, the company ships large volumes of temperature-controlled liquid chemicals to the DLA. In the RFID world, those shipments, which combine liquids and metals (the chemical containers are packaged in boxes wrapped with insulating foil), represent what amounts to a double whammy.Metal reflects RF signals, and liquids absorb them, compromising the accuracy of tag reads.
"I wasn't worried about tagging a case of test tubes," says Sellentin. "My concern was tagging a case of temperature-controlled life sciences chemicals. If that tag doesn't read, the carton will be diverted for manual processing. While it's sitting there, it could lose its temperature integrity and the product [would be] ruined."
Anxious to avoid that scenario, Sellentin called in experts from systems integrator epcSolutions and Zebra Technologies. The team solved the problem by applying the RFID smart label to a rubber plate placed on the foil-wrapped boxes, which provided enough of a buffer to shield the smart label's tag from the interference inside.
While that resolved the metal and liquid problems, there was still the temperature-controlled aspect to consider. Many of the products that GSS ships are frozen, often stored at -40 degrees Celsius. No one knew how the tags would be affected by extreme temperatures. To find out, Sellentin's team froze a batch of RFID tags to see how they would react. "We didn't know what to expect," he says, "but they passed with flying colors."
Right now, GSS is still awaiting word from the DOD as to when it should begin shipping products with the smart tags. Sellentin expects that word will come sometime this month. Although it's continuing to prepare for a full-scale implementation, GSS will initially apply smart tags only to the shipments it's required to tag. To identify those shipments, epcSolutions software will check the shipto address for all products arriving at GSS's distribution centers. If the address is for a DOD facility that requires RFID, the software will direct the shipment labeling system to produce a smart label, which will be manually applied to the carton and immediately verified using a handheld interrogator. RFID-tagged shipments will be verified a second time through an RFID pOréal reader immediately before leaving the GSS distribution center.
To date, GSS has handled RFID labeling as a stand-alone operation. However, the system ultimately will be upgraded so that GSS can integrate its smart labeling operations with its inventory control and warehouse management systems. At that point, GSS will also be able to produce advance ship notices automatically.
For all its investment in training and RFID equipment, GSS doesn't expect to see immediate benefits. (The government, however, stands to gain by automating and simplifying an archaic and inefficient receiving system.) Right now, the best GSS can hope for is a faster turnaround on payments from the government.
Nonetheless, Sellentin believes the effort will pay off down the road. "Having the capability to do this will only help to make us a value-added player with our suppliers and with the U.S. government," he says. "That's why we're doing this."
As it gains more experience with RFID, GSS hopes to incorporate the technology into its internal DC processes. GSS itself deals with more than 250 major suppliers and manufacturers, and processes millions of separate line items. "[W]e face many of the same challenges as the U.S. government," Sellentin points out. "We also have to figure out how to receive materials from all these folks and have it done right."