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  Home News Room 04-Jul-2005  
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Logistics: evolution in goods management thanks to RFID technology

The abbreviation RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and means in a nutshell that objects can be tracked and identified by radio signal. A special transponder is needed for this purpose, which is attached to the product or the pack and - put in simple terms - consists of an electricity supply facility, a microchip and a transmission device, i.e. an aerial. Information of many different kinds can be stored on the chip, such as the producer, article number, delivery date or use-by date. The information can be read out with the help of special scanning devices of the kind used, for example, for the non-contact screening of ski passes at ski lifts. "It has been a time-consuming business to control flows of goods in the past - a great deal of sorting and counting has been needed. This work is eliminated with RFID: storage, incoming and outgoing goods movements can be determined without any mistakes at any time", says Sven Dirkling from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML).

According to the research scientist, RFID technology has the potential to change logistics in future: "Although we are not expecting a revolution, we do anticipate evolution." The technology is already completely viable in principle, but it is still more expensive than alternatives at the moment. A transponder consisting of a chip, an aerial and an electricity supply facility in a simple configuration, i.e. that can only store one number, is said to cost about thirty to fifty cents. A chip that can be rewritten and can store a large amount of different data as well is many times more expensive, on the other hand.

Even though use of RFID technology is only reported to be worthwhile for controlling expensive products so far, it apparently enables information to be collected and stored about the entire life cycle of a product. RFID chips have a memory that makes them autonomous: the transponder fixed to the base plate of a future telephone, vacuum cleaner or kitchen mixer already provides information during assembly, such as the model name or the colour. Later on, the same transponder helps to locate the finished product in the warehouse and, when it leaves the factory, to check and automate the outgoing goods process. The customer is able in turn to check easily whether the goods he receives are in line with his order. Depending on the type of transponder used, one is even provided on request with information about the duration of the transport operations, the temperatures to which the product is exposed or the humidity level. And the product reveals how it is to be recycled at the end of its life - thanks to RFID.

The first practical applications for the new technology have already been introduced: at the Future Store run by Metro AG, a strategic partner of IML, RFID is already being used successfully to check stocks as well as incoming and outgoing goods. RFID is suitable for locating goods in transit too: Fraunhofer research scientists from the Institute for Factory Operation and Automation have developed the "IFF Smart Box", a container equipped with a scanning device that can check its contents. The data are forwarded to a small computer unit. The computer combines them with the current position determined by a GPS unit. Various sensors can be integrated in the box too, in order to measure pressure, temperature or vibration.

The information is transmitted to a database by mobile phone. The database is accessible via the Internet: logistic companies and customers can inquire where their goods are at the moment, whether the specified storage and temperature conditions are being observed or how serious vibration has been during transport. RFID technology provides protection too: the customer can, for example, specify which employee is allowed to open the door of the container when and where - the door to the IFF Smart Box only opens when the electronic lock receives a signal from an approved transponder card.

"The IFF Smart Box is a prototype that we have developed together with our industrial partner Enaikoon", says Dr Klaus Richter from the IFF. "It is designed initially for transporting valuable and expensive products. There are a large number of other conceivable applications, however." Such as parcel services that want to stop unauthorised people from entering the loading area, suppliers who need to make sure that the required number of parts reach the customer at a specific time; suppliers of sensitive electronics, who want to record vibration during transport. Richter: "The Box enables us to control complete supply chains better from the producer to the customer. This makes it possible to respond to unforeseen events at short notice, if this proves to be necessary."

Ralf Neuhaus
Telephone: +49 2 31 / 97 43-2 74, fax: -2 15
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