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Beyond sensors: RFID and wearables

Warehouses, retail outlets, and other industries are using RFID tags and wearable devices for ERP and supply chain management.

Warehouse operations, retail outlets, and many other industries are leveraging IoT solutions using RFID tags and wearable devices. We'll look at the leading technologies and discuss how they may be integrated into ERP and supply chain management frameworks.

Many consumers probably have the misconception that RFID tags can transmit information across large distances. Remember the commercial, where a large truck comes screeching to a halt at a desk in the middle of the road? When the driver hops out, the person at the desk says, "You're lost!" Incredulous, the driver asks, "How did you know?" to which the desk person replies, "The boxes told us."

The mistake here is a common one, but important for understanding the two different kinds of RFID tags available, and appropriate applications for each.

The RFID tags that are routinely inserted into shipping boxes are passive RFID tags, which comprise an antenna, a small integrated circuit, and about 2 kilobits (2K) of memory on a chip with no power source. These can be read from a range of up to 20 feet by a dedicated reader that emits radio waves. The waves reach the tag's antenna and power the chip, which then sends its data to the reader in a process called "backscatter." Average cost for these is about $0.12 per tag in bulk.

Active RFID tags, at costs ranging from $20 to more than $100 each, have their own power supply and broadcast their signals across longer distances. These are often affixed to shipping containers and other large vehicles and conveyances. In the commercial, it would have been likelier that the truck told the desk it was lost.

RFID use cases in retail

Retailers are finding a growing and diverse number of ways to apply passive RFID tags not only to inventory and related operations, but also to sales, marketing, and the enhancement of the customer experience.

Many of these customer-facing applications combine RFID technology with wearable technologies, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, to interact with customers in-store.

Imagine a customer walking into a retail store wearing their smartwatch, which is read instantly upon their arrival. All manner of interactions become possible. The watch may tell the wearer when they are approaching an item they have expressed interest in, or that's recommended based on their purchasing history and profile. Reading fitness and wellness information stored in the wearable, a store may recommend certain types of foods, new and improved crossfit footwear, and other relevant items.

At checkout, the RFID tags can all be read and, using the customer's payment data from their wearable or smartphone, the entire transaction can be handled without ever moving items out of the cart and without the need for a human cashier. This holds the promise of greatly reducing wait times and enhancing the overall shopping experience for the customer.

Capturing all these interactions, as well as which interactive shelf-labels customers scan for more information, and traffic data detailing their movement throughout the store, provides information retailers crave. This kind of data helps store management improve product placement and promotions as well as stocking locations, signage, and other sales-building activities. It also helps optimize supply chain processes.

Textbook ERP

Real-time inventory accuracy, properly utilized, virtually eliminates stock-out situations without incurring the costs of over-stocking. Intelligently deployed RFID readers help reduce other product losses, too. Knowing with certainty which store locations currently have stock on-hand helps justify decisions to re-locate inventory in a cost-effective way.

Similarly, asset tracking capabilities of both passive and active RFID tags help operators locate needed equipment and other items far more rapidly than any human search could ever achieve.

Sales personnel also benefit, as RFID tags report available inventory and then supply product information to them directly on tablets, which they can share with customers right on the sales floor. Since the customer's information from their store account, and even from their wearable technology (with sufficient approval) is at the associate's fingertips, he or she can help customers make truly informed decisions.

Increasing the value of wearable technology

Technology worn on the wrist has certainly led the way in wearable technologies. Users receive all manner of notifications not only in the retail context, but it most every part of their lives.

The market is now seeing the emergence of interactive clothing. Shirts that read how many calories have been burned during exercise, pulse and respiration, and more. Pants that provide information on how many steps have been walked. We can already envision outerwear that provides additional heat in response to lowering temperatures.

This is an Internet of things

Connecting customers with products and retail operations holds the promise of significantly improving customer experiences, making retailers more responsive, and making the shopping experience far more immersive than before. Connecting these retail environments and the transactions taking place within them will also continue to optimize operations. We're only beginning to discover the new capabilities and opportunities enabled by this technology.

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