Radio frequency identification offers a tantalising vision of a networked world where business processes will work seamlessly, computer to computer to resolve today's intractable supply chain problems says Allied Domecq global supply chain development team member Alistair McArthur

Before this becomes possible decisions must be taken – sorting out what is real and can be done in reasonable steps, correctly sequenced, along a path towards the desired end result.

Allied Domecq has just completed a pilot project sponsored by the Home Office Chipping of Goods Initiative and it was able to successfully trial a combination of proven bar codes and RFID for asset tracking.

Working in partnership with De La Rue Brand Protection, APT Smart Solutions and CHEP, a system to uniquely identify consumer units [the bottle] using an encrypted serial number equivalent to the ePC [electronic product code] was deployed using a 2D Datamatrix bar code.

Each case was marked with an EAN 128 linear bar code incorporating a serial number. Each pallet was identified by an RFID using principles being developed at the time by EAN International for Global Tag (GTAG).

The system allowed us to create, track and trace back a hierarchy of records including the consumer unit, case, pallet and order – and to make a traceable link to Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise record used to record payment of Customs Duty.

We proved that by reading the 2D bar code on no more than three bottles from the same delivery found in the market, we could identify the last known owner and duty status with high levels of statistical confidence.

Proven linear bar codes combined with more adventurous 2D bar codes are available now and can be combined with RFID identification on transport units.

There is no need to wait for RFID to get started. Users can do a lot more now with linear bar codes on items, cases and pallets and roll cages [employing the UCC/EAN 128 standard shipping container code label].

When RFID broadens its usage it will be used in a dual system with the bar code, probably forever. The bar code is today’s global, affordable standard system and, during transition, we will require the two to work together.

The vision of a networked world using intelligent tags is attractive and we will get there but key prerequisites – currently unavailable – include global, open standards; proven, affordable technology; and a high level of collaboration between manufacturers and retailers who are prepared to adopt compatible solutions.

Without these factors in place, the system will not generate data from which actionable information can be retrieved. We will probably have to wait more than a decade for these conditions to emerge.

&#8220Reality must be separated from hype and we must avoid the pitfalls hidden by a mirage of smoke and mirrors”

Even when this new world arrives there will be some enormous challenges. An RFID tag on every item is not free. Adapting manufacturers’ production lines and packaging specifications is expensive. Developing the manufacturing and retail supply chain to be driven by electronic scanning requires capital investment. In today’s uncertain world, who will pay?

In today’s litigious world will consumer groups accept the risk of reduced privacy as retailers retain records of all purchases so that the process of customer returns can be strengthened to stop fraud when stolen goods are brought back for a cash refund?

Will manufacturers accept the cost of tagging when the investment they make is not protected? What will stop black market activity where the tag is removed, damaged or counterfeited to prevent product traceability?

Should the law give trading standards officers the power to identify and prosecute those who deliberately damage the tag? Without this, what is the benefit of a track and trace system designed to work at consumer unit level? How will society benefit through reduced counterfeit and fraud?

All these questions have to be answered sooner, rather than later, so why not identify the reasonable steps that can be taken now and lay the foundation for a networked world?

Businesses, large and small, can learn about and adopt UCC/EAN-128 linear barcodes data standards and lay a foundation for computer to computer electronic communication using automatic data transfer. The networked world cannot deliver unless the mass of data it will spawn can be communicated, sorted out and made actionable. Data standards and integrity are a key foundation.

Businesses, large and small, can learn about how to take orders, pick, pack and issue advance delivery notification using EAN128 linear bar codes, data carriers that can include a serial number, lot number, best before date and so on.

Good application seamlessly from the retail distribution centre to back of store will help address some of the complexity and confusion that reduces the chance of achieving high on-shelf availability and consumer choice that we all need to see.

Data standardisation and bar coding means a lot of work to achieve the promises of data integrity within any company. But the payback is real – reduced error, more accurate stock records, higher service levels, accurate invoices and timely payment.

We need not wait for the smoke and mirrors to clear away. Let’s just do the things we know work and lay the foundations for a future in which bar code and RFID can work seamlessly.