That’s the kind of horserace it was at Frontline’s International Supply Chain Week Conference and Expo. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology topics and products dominated both conference and expo. Standard old barcoding stayed in second place in the automatic identification attention derby — but not in sales, I’m sure.

Some excitement was provided by Wal-Mart, which got everybody’s attention by ordering its top 100 suppliers to ship their products on pallets embedded with RFID tags by 2005. Sort of supply chain by fiat. However, compliance with the Wal-Mart edict added new urgency to RFID technology.

First, what is RFID and what is its connection with the supply chain?

RFID is based on a microchip that is attached to a tiny antenna, smaller than a grain of sand. The microchip and antenna are embedded in a tag that is used to identify a product or container or pallet. An electronic product code (EPC) is stored in the chip. Explains the Auto-ID Center, a non-profit partnership of representatives from business and academia: “Like a barcode, the 96-bit EPC uses a string of numbers to identify an item’s manufacturer and product category. The EPC adds a third set of digits — a serial number unique to each item.”

The New Network, a publication of the Auto-ID Center, continues its definition: “Readers (sometimes called interrogators) are another crucial component. They send out electromagnetic waves that power up the RFID tag, enabling it to transmit back the information stored on the microchip.” Additional data about the product is available on the product’s database.

Thus, an RFID tag embedded in a pallet can identify the contents of every container in the palletload. Nor does RFID require line-of-sight reading, as does a barcode.

At the expo, the widest selection of RFID tags came from Intermec, which also offered a selection guide as well as a list of the appropriate standards.

How users should comply with the Wal-Mart mandate offered an opportunity to move products like printers and warehouse management systems (WMS). For example, Printronix, a printer supplier, partnered with Alien Technology, a tag supplier, to develop RFID printing solutions, such as an EPC-compliant smart label developer’s kit. Provia Software, a provider of supply chain execution software solutions, announced a standalone RFID kit for its Via- Ware WMS. Available for general release later this year, the kit is an add-on module to an existing WMS that would enable users to comply with RFID standards for WMS functions such as receiving, putaway, picking and shipping in order to be RFID-compliant.

Unfortunately, the key to the supply chain as far as compliance with retail RFID is concerned — the palletload — was not in evidence at the expo. Nor were the various containers used throughout the supply chain. I’m sure you’ll see containers and pallets with embedded RFID tags at NA 2004, The Material Handling & Logistics Show and Conference, scheduled for Cleveland’s I-X Center, March 29 - April 1, 2004.

RFID, like barcoding, functions best in a material handling environment. And the pallet is one of the most traditional material handling devices. Place your bets on technologies that will get your products to the finish line — your customer’s doorstep.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor

bernknill@aol.com