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The Thing’ sounds like the sort of 1950s B-movie monster whose presence is accompanied by the eerie sound of a Theremin to add extra spookiness. However, in this instance it refers to the Great Seal bug, an eavesdropping device that the Russians sneaked into the US Embassy in Moscow. Presented by schoolchildren, The Thing was a cunning device designed to pick up what was being said and transmit it by radio for interception. By coincidence, it was designed by Léon Theremin, the man behind the eponymous instrument notorious for adding spooky sound effects to B-movies and shrill sounds to Beach Boys’ hits.

Also, because of the way it worked, it is often considered a precursor of the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag.

A few years ago RFID tags were very much ‘the thing’ for solving all manner of supply chain and product identity problems. Their ability to uniquely identify the product or package they were attached to when read by a radio frequency receiver was predicted to be the way to keep tabs on products everywhere from the factory floor, through the supply chain and to the end-user, whether via retail or commercial distribution.

“People thought that RFID was a solution that covered the whole infrastructure,” says Domino Printing Sciences global account manager Craig Stobie. “It didn’t and the infrastructure is the hard part.

His views are echoed by the findings of technology research firm Gartner in its report RFID in the 2009 Supply Chain: Overview and Best Practice Guide for Maximum Investment Value, which states: “RFID is best-known as the thing that was going to revolutionise supply chain management. The hype asserted that tagging everything in the supply chain would solve all the control and visibility issues that plague modern supply chains.” The report goes on to add that “there is no magic quadrant for RFID; it doesn’t make sense to look at RFID as a homogeneous technology or market”.

The applications where RFID has made inroads include high-value goods and pharmaceuticals, asset tracking and medical devices. And even in those areas it is not a solve-all technology, cautions Stobie.

Best practices
Gartner has defined a checklist of seven best practices for identifying whether RFID is relevant. They are: start with the business case and realistically examine the alternatives; focus on the business process; align hardware capability with the environmental situation; decide on closed-loop versus open-loop deployments; don’t neglect data quality; select vendors that understand your problem; and lastly, narrow the scope, address security and simplify the architecture.

One of the drivers behind the adoption of RFID technology has been demand for automated traceability of products through what is known as mass serialisation. Mass serialisation means identifying individual products down to a package level instead of having a barcode that identifies something as a particular type of product. For example, on a 16-tablet pack of a certain dose of a branded drug, a mass serialisation code would carry more detailed information, such as batch number, manufacturing date and use-by date as well as a further unique part of the serial number that identifies that particular packet.

The move towards mass serialisation is being driven by healthcare legislation, including the Californian Pedigree legislation, and efforts from the pharmaceutical industry to impose its own standards rather than face a myriad of different and costly country-specific legislation.

Another area where it is becoming important is in tobacco production where it is used to manage parallel trade, to make sure that duty is being paid on products in the country in which they end up being consumed.

Tagging options
When it comes to mass serialisation it’s necessary to have a machine-readable code on each item, but that doesn’t have to be an RFID tag. Instead it could be a 1D or 2D barcode. When it comes to selecting the most appropriate data carrier the criteria include cost and read reliability.

“Generally RFID is de-selected because of cost,” confirms Stobie.

“And in many situations RFID is only 90% accurate whereas the only thing that is 99% accurate is an ECC200 2D data matrix.”

RFID does have a place when products are ganged together at pallet level and above, at which point its reliability and cost become viable. This means that there needs to be what Stobie terms “aggregation systems”. This is the workflow and software that enables you to link information about individual items to the packets they are in and information about those packets to the pallets they are on and so forth across the supply chain.

Below pallet level there is still a need for the infrastructure to read data and for each pack to be identified by a unique number, but for reasons of cost and reliability these tend to be 2D barcodes.

Common technologies
Although 2D barcodes are cheaper than RFID tags and can be printed using a number of established variable-data printing techniques, such as lasering and inkjet, to generate unique product IDs, they do place more demands on the print process.

“Machine-readable codes mean production has to be consistent,” says Stobie. “Print areas and colours need to be carefully controlled if codes are going to be read reliably. If you can’t print reliably at line speed, your business will suffer.” In this instance, there are two parts to that printing: one is the printing of the graphics on the carton or label, the second is the later overprinting at the packing line with the unique identifier.

The first printing will have effects on the effectiveness of the second when it comes to machine reading that demand greater consistency than ever before.

“Gone are the days of a carton just having to look nice and have a human-readable best-before date,” he says. “If the best-before date was a bit grey, it wouldn’t stop the customer from reading it.”

Because of the adaptability of the eye we can account for very big differences in appearance and still make out the necessary information. On the other hand a camera or scanner may have a much narrower tolerance and therefore changes in the print’s density, colour or surface gloss may have a big impact on that import read reliability. This is another driver towards tighter print production standards using objective data.

The Thing that is RFID may have started out as a solution looking for a problem. As a result firms have focused on their supply chains, often to find that while RFID could be an answer to their questions there are often better and cheaper answers available.