Five hundred million. That's a five followed by eight zeros, and it represents the number of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags ordered by The Gillette Co. last month. At a time when many companies are just starting to investigate using RFID at the pallet and carton level, the Boston-based manufacturer of razors and other personal grooming products will begin testing its use at the item level this year.
It wasn't all that long ago that RFID tags were reserved for use on big objects like railcars.They were bulky and expensive, and the idea of tags small and cheap enough to use on individual items sou nded like something out of the next century. Well, now it is the next century and they're here.
Beginning this year, Gillette will be placing some of the tags on products distributed to select customers. It is an enormous, and enormously important, test of RFID technology. Gillette believes that the tags will make it possible to follow products through their life cycle from manufacturing through distribution to the point of sale. It hopes the technology will help reduce losses from theft or from stockouts. It expects that the technology will make its entire supply chain more efficient through the ability to obtain information on the status and location of its products, wherever they reside.
Gillette is buying the tags from Alien Technologies, a California-based company. These tags are small, measured in microns. Suspended in a fluid, they look to the naked eye like the flakes in a snow globe. Talk about big things in a small package!
RFID technology certainly has a ways to go before we'll see routine use of hundreds of millions of tags. But the development and acceptance of the technology—and breakthroughs that will allow high-speed manufacturing of millions of chips—are coming faster than anyone might have expected.
Longer ago than I'd like to admit, I spent some time as an order picker in a warehouse, rolling a cart along the aisles and scanning the shelves with my eyes (much sharper then) to find items listed on a paper pick list while I dodged the fork lift. Rare was the order that we shipped complete, and long was the time spent looking for items. When I see how far we've come and how fast things continue to change, it's a delight to speculate how far we may yet get to go.