RFID expert says tracking should begin before products arrive at U.S. ports

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Justin Patton, director of Auburn University’s RFID Lab, provides insight into RFID regarding holiday shipping, supply chain issues and current developments in the application of RFID technology. Auburn’s RFID Lab is a research institute focusing on the business case and technical implementation of emerging technologies in retail, supply chain, aerospace and manufacturing.

Consumers have become accustomed to tracking their packages. Are there any new developments this holiday season regarding RFID and tracking?

The supply chain is very disrupted right now, and that affects availability for almost everything. Consumers are very accustomed to tracking their packages in very specific steps of its journey. They get regular shipping updates, but also get specific information about what is and isn’t available at retailers and when it may be back in stock. As RFID expands into electronics and other consumer products, retailers are getting much better at showing the customers what they have, where it is and when it might be back in stock. It’s still not perfect, but we’re slowly getting better at it, and RFID is helping.

Cargo ships are located off the coast near ports. Are their products trackable?

In the U.S., we have this unspoken belief that if an item is in the country, we should know where it is and be able to track it as it moves through the country. But overseas is a big question mark. We hear about shipping containers off the coast, and we talk about them like they’re a giant mystery box and how, once they get here, all of these items will magically appear. Take PlayStations for example: The new PS5 has been in short supply for all of this year. There are dozens of websites tracking when new shipments will “drop” at retailers here, where PS5s can be quickly ordered or tracked down at stores. But until the shipments hit the U.S., we have no visibility, and most consumers don’t even expect to have any visibility until the products reach U.S. ports, which is actually close to the end of the journey. RFID isn’t being applied to PlayStations yet, but about 25% of the global apparel items manufactured are being RFID tagged, and that is growing rapidly. We are changing the way we think about international shipping with serialized item tracking. We should be able to track items back to the factory, not just to the port where it hit the U.S. The concept of item serialization for a trace history of all products hasn’t completely caught on, but we’re getting there.

Are RFID companies experiencing any shortages (i.e., computer chips for scanners)?

No, as an industry, RFID tends to be really good about future forecasting. Usually we expect 10-15% market growth each year. Because of the global supply chain issues, demand is very high for RFID products, so we may see 30% growth going into 2022. Even with this phenomenal growth, the industry has accounted for it and we’re on track. I suspect we will see even more demand in 2023. These global supply chain availability issues aren’t just going to go away in the next few weeks; it is here to stay for at least the next two years or more for some markets.

What are some new RFID developments for manufacturers?

We’re seeing a lot of RFID on electronics, sporting goods and cases of food. It’s not really new RFID products, it’s just growth. Right now, we’re trying to expand the market to fit demand. While research is ongoing regarding RFID, we really need more implementation right now. It’s a good place to be.

Are traditional industries beginning to adopt RFID technology?

Food is the most traditional industry there is. You can see a few articles from some quick-serve restaurants popping up with RFID supply chain tracking. We’ll see more of that. In years past, we would get asked if RFID can help automate the supply chain, and people would ask how serialized inventory technology compares to the cost of manual labor. Currently, no one is asking about a comparison to the cost of manual labor because labor availability in the supply chain has just evaporated. There are fewer people available to work in the distribution centers, so there’s a lot of supply chain operators eager for any type of labor-saving technology, not to save on labor, but because they just don’t have the labor force to expand.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Charles Martin in Auburn University’s Office of Communications and Marketing at marticd@auburn.edu.

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