American retail supergiant Walmart has partnered with researchers at Auburn University to implement cutting-edge technology in modernizing inventory control, thus providing stores and customers with a multitude of streamlined services intended to save time and money.
Dr. Senthilkumar Chinnappa Gounder (left) and Justin Patton.
Work being done at Auburn using radio frequency identification, or RFID, is having an impact on the entire landscape regarding supply chain management from product-maker to final customer. The technology under development already is being explored by other partners ranging from the likes of NASA and Delta Airlines to Gulf Coast fishers trying to round up lost oyster cages.
“Everybody does inventory,” said Justin Patton, who directs the work at Auburn.
The research, led by the university’s RFID Lab associated with Auburn’s Harbert College of Business, uses radio frequencies linking tagged products to a small, light-weight scan gun that can instantly identify, locate and count merchandise within a close proximity.
Unlike commonly used scanners that require barcodes and physical scanning of individual items or items in bulk, the use of radio frequency technology that implements aspects of artificial intelligence allows a scan gun to detect and summarize data from mass quantities of inventory stock all at once, scanning literally hundreds of items in just seconds.
Vendors providing products to Walmart will be required to include on their merchandise-attached sales tags a small sticker that includes an electronic product code, or EPC, instead of only a traditional bar code.
Then, an employee can use an RFID scanner by simply walking along an aisle and waving the scan gun up and down the shelves. Everything within the scan gun’s range or wave will be recorded, providing the data programmed into the sales tags to be received by the scanner.
An example of how RFID technology improves sales service is how product availability affects the overall customer experience, Patton said.
The improved data and accountability with the RFID system will help eliminate product availability issues, he said, and make it easier and faster to find the merchandise, especially in cases where numerous items might be stored in a crowded storage area.
The technology is being developed and enhanced at an off-campus location inside the university’s administrative and laboratory offices, located on the southwest corner of East Glenn Avenue and University Drive. Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and the College of Human Sciences are also involved in the lab. Both helped support the initial setup of the lab in 2014 and both colleges provide financial support and students to help in the research.
Walmart, impressed with Auburn’s RFID development and continued research, recently partnered with the lab and is already in the process of distributing training videos to most of its product vendors. It includes a request that all merchandise tagging first be approved by Auburn experts before going to market.
Walmart operates more than 10,000 stores and a massive eCommerce network.
Asking its vendors to go through Auburn first on the way to the customer is big news, said Patton, and it provides a significant, attention-getting endorsement of the lab’s work. Already, more research agreements involving similarly big-name partners from other industries loom on the horizon.
The Walmart partnership also provides valuable funding and networking opportunities, he said, giving Auburn, the Harbert College of Business, the RFID lab and its students more national exposure for their leadership in the radio frequency identification field.
That, in turn, provides students valuable real-world work experiences, he said.
Lab manager Ashton Smart said that along with a handful of full-time employees, 70 students already work at the lab, most with some type of paid service and some doing graduate-level research work. The Walmart project coupled with a high demand from other retailers and brands, “means we’ll be adding more.”
Patton hopes to have at least 100 students on the workforce in the near future.
Auburn’s research in the RFID field began years ago. “We’ve been working with it on the apparel side since at least 2008,” Smart said.
But every department is different, she said, and that is another reason Auburn’s work is significant, in that it has led to the ability to apply the technology to almost all of Walmart’s needs, including electronics, toys, sporting goods, entertainment products and more.
There remain challenges in using RFID tagging with certain metals and liquids, Patton said, “which is why we’re a research lab.”
However, the Auburn lab continues to find answers, and that has other industries, including space exploration, interested in using the technology to keep track of what it has and where it is located, even in outer space.
“They lose stuff up there in space just like we lose stuff down here,” Patton grinned and said, pointing out that several private space exploration companies are just as interested in the technology as NASA.
Auburn’s lab also is working with university-affiliated cohorts on Alabama’s Dauphin Island to explore uses of the technology there in the fishing industry.
Other RFID uses in various stages of research and implementation include industries such as pharmaceuticals, health care, travel, “and definitely supply chain activities,” Patton said.
The biggest reward for him, he said, as director of the lab is seeing the students succeed.
“The students never get enough credit,” Patton said. “They’ll run with it, and they are very capable.”