Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
What is RFID?
RFID is an abbreviation for Radio Frequency Identification, a technology that allows for the automatic identification of objects using radio signals. An RFID system is generally made up of interrogators (readers) that send out radio signals which will read or program transponders (tags).
RFID systems have been used for decades in applications such as keyless entry for building security systems or for automatically collecting toll money on highways. The Department of Defense and several large retailers such as Wal-Mart have recently mandated that their suppliers begin applying RFID tags to boxes and pallets so that they can easily be tracked after they are received from suppliers. The RFID tags used in this scenario are passive, meaning they do not contain batteries and as such they are low-cost, disposable, and thin enough to be embedded into standard shipping labels.
The data in an RFID label destined for the Department of Defense is usually very minimal, it won't contain much more than your DoD cage code and a serial number. No other significant information is programmed into the tag. So how does the DoD use RFID to know what is in your boxes? The answer is that you communicate information about what is in each logistic unit by sending receiving reports to the DoD Wide Area Workflow System (WAWF).
The Wide Area Workflow system is a proprietary software system developed by the Department of Defense that receives invoice and shipping data from DoD suppliers in electronic form.
As you tag your RFID shipping units, you must keep track of which contract line items (and optionally which UID instances) are in each of the boxes and pallets you are tagging. When you ship your goods to the DoD you must also submit a receiving report containing all of this RFID information. When the Department of Defense RFID system interrogates your boxes with its RFID readers it will look up each RFID tag it finds in the Wide Area Workflow database and only then can it discover what contract line items and UID instances are in each shipping container.
If you are shipping UID items to the DoD you must specify which UID instances are in each RFID logistic unit. This is troublesome because many DoD suppliers may have systems that allow them visibility into what serialized items are in a shipment, but they do not have systems that track serialized items down to the case or pallet level.
RFID is required when the relevant DFARS clauses are included in your contract with the Department of Defense. Though you are not required to become RFID compliant before you execute on the new contract, it is usually a good idea to implement and pilot an RFID solution well beforehand because substantial planning can be required.
The RFID mandate from the Department of the Defense is not as simple as slapping an additional label on the outside of a box. The required steps may change business processes across many organizational boundaries and buyoff on a final RFID solution will usually require input from decision makers in various departments such as IT, Manufacturing, Quality Assurance, Shipping, Contracts, and Finance.
All passive RFID tag technology used in the Department of Defense mandate must operate using technology standards created by EPC Global (provide link). By purchasing EPC compliant tags, printers, and readers you can be assured that regardless of manufacturer, your equipment will be compliant with DoD RFID policy.