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How to Maintain Quality Control in an RFID Enabled Supply Chain

As more retailers turn to radio frequency identification (RFID) to improve inventory accuracy and for help skirting stock-outs, talk has turned to how to maintain quality control and keep underperforming RFID tags from infiltrating the supply chain.

An RFID integrated supply chain means retailers can easily capture and track always up-to-date inventory data that the auto-ID technology facilitates.

But in today’s convoluted supply chain, there are ample opportunities for tags to get damaged, or for erroneous tag substitutions.

“At a high level, an RFID tag is the cornerstone of all systems,”said FineLine Technologies CEO George Hoffman.

Every RFID tag has an inlay containing a chip with a unique license plate number, or tag identifier (TID) that’s only written once by the chip manufacturer, an SGTIN, or the item UPC code plus a unique serial identifier that tells the reader it’s a size large red polo shirt, for example, is then written into the chip.

Some retailers have been attaching RFID tags at the store level, some at the distribution center (DC), but what’s happening now, according to Hoffman, is that retailers are pushing back to vendors asking them to affix the tags in their facilities prior to shipping the product.

“This increases the potential for these tags to be damaged as they move through this much longer supply chain,” Hoffman said.

The cost for an RFID tag can range anywhere from $0.07 to $0.15 cents each, which is on average 10 times more expensive than conventional price tickets—not a price all vendors are willing to shell out for.

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“There are ticket providers or vendors who might want to save money and maybe go with unapproved, lower-cost, underperforming inlays—where encoded data is incorrect or there’s duplicate tagging. We have already uncovered these issues in the supply chain through audits,” Hoffman said.

Studies have indicated that retailers end up with a 1-3 percent error in inventory because tags aren’t functioning as intended.

And when RFID tags don’t work the right way, the impact to the supply chain can be costly, more so in a sector already struggling to accommodate demands for faster fashion.

Hoffman said one vendor shipped garments to a major retailer that weren’t encoded correctly, and the company ended up with 100,000 items of unregistered inventory. That inventory had to sit, ignored, for two to three weeks until it could be retagged—time no retailer today can afford to lose.

In an effort to address these issues, FineLine developed a mobile application to measure, record and report on the quality of RFID tags all the way back to the original ticket supplier to ensure that when tags hit the store, they have the highest probability of working the right way. The ticketing company launched the QCTrak mobile app last year, and it can be used throughout the retail supply chain from manufacturing to store, allowing brands to test for accuracy at will.

A small ultra-high frequency (UHF) reader—which means the read range can be as far as 15 feet and it has the fastest data transfer rate among RFID readers—plugs into a headphone jack, reads the RFID tag to indentify the unique serial numbers and can detect who the chip manufacturer is in real time to make sure there are no unapproved inlays.

Data on the time and place of the scan is also available, and from the time the user opens the app to the time they receive returned verification takes less than two seconds with WiFi, according to Hoffman.

And just to ensure vendors are in fact using the readers to verify the tags, retailers have access to scans that show vendors’ tag auditing activity.

Tracking and solutions company Zebra Technologies launched a similar device last month, its sled reader, which lets users read UHF RFID tags by connecting their Android or iOS device to the reader via Bluetooth. The device is slated for commercial release in the fall.

IDBLUE offers a handheld stylus reader weighing in at just 2 ounces that can connect to a smartphone for direct application feedback, and onboard data storage lets users record thousands of tag IDs without being linked to a computing device. The company dubbed the device “ultra-mobile.”

FineLine has also integrated Google Maps into its QCTrak so that users can even see street views of the facility where their tag was scanned, something that could help with compliance down the line as companies will be able to have a better handle on who they are working with, whether they are able to travel there or not.

Nordstrom, Bass Pro, QVC, Pac Sun and Cabella’s have already tapped into FineLine’s technologies, cutting the time it traditionally takes to get tags made from weeks to just 48 hours.

Hoffman said quality control has been a popular topic among retailers of late, and GS1, the information standards organization, is getting much more involved in helping to develop standards surrounding tagged-item performance protocol (TIPP), a scale for grading the performance of UHF RFID tags when used on specific products in specific environments.

GS1 said putting the standard in place could lead to more universal adoption of RFID tagging for apparel and other markets.

In a January article in the RFID Journal, Bebe Purcell, a co-chair of the TIPP workgroup and a VF Corp. senior analyst said, “Tagging at the source helps retailers and suppliers drive true inventory accuracy and visibility to meet the consumer omni-channel promise.”

She added, “But up until now, suppliers have been challenged with inventory segmentation—as RFID’s performance requirements have been unique from retailer to retailer. With no best practices in place, suppliers have been subjected to undue operational costs and constraints. The TIPP guideline helps alleviate these supplier constrictions by offering the retail sector a methodology to consistently define, test and verify the performance level of EPC-enabled RFID tags.”

Hoffman said the standards are expected to roll out this summer.