Attention shoppers!

Product tracking and tracing in the form of barcodes and RFIDs are now part of the cost of doing business.

Product tracking and tracing in the form of barcodes and RFIDs are now part of the cost of doing business.

The largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart (Bentonville, AR), notified its suppliers in November 2002 that radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems would soon be in operation at many of its distribution centers and stores. At the cost of millions of dollars to themselves, suppliers must start tagging their merchandise with RF chips containing electronic ID numbers that can be captured by an antenna, converted to digital form, and tracked and modified by computer. The first RFID tags debuted on pallets and cases of merchandise at six Wal-Mart stores in April 2004. Eventually, many individual items will need a tag. You don't need to be a marketing genius to know that when Wal-Mart decrees something like this, it becomes the retail industry norm.

The mandatory use of RFID systems has alarmed some observers who have privacy concerns, but the giant retailer has very clear business motives tied to logistical functions such as warehouse inventory control, automated checkout, theft prevention, and product tracking. The next few years will see a tremendous growth in RFID use, encouraged by falling prices for tags and affecting every industry, whether or not it supplies Wal-Mart. Beyond retailing, the impetus for growth will vary, from meeting recent U.S. Department of Defense parts-tracking requirements to monitoring the structure and wear of radial tires.

RFID is one of several methods that support the growing demands for tracking and tracing. Linear barcodes and 2-D data-matrix codes are visual equivalents of RFID, and, of course, require a line of sight between camera and either the code printed on a label or the coding marks made by dot-peening or laser marking. RFID, though now more expensive, has the advantage that the information encoded in a tag can be changed.

Truth in labeling

Tracking and tracing have become essential elements of the post-9/11 world. Take the case of food and beverage products and ingredients, which are sourced and sold globally through high-volume manufacturing and very rapid distribution systems. This production and distribution chain is particularly vulnerable to contamination, whether intentional or accidental, and the consequences could have a devastating impact on a company or a national economy. In response, the 2002 U.S. Bioterrorism Act sets out regulations that will require a complete backward and forward records traceability program for food and beverages—and by complete, I mean that the U.S. government wants to be able to track every ingredient from the farmer to the retailer, and have the records available in four hours during business hours and eight otherwise.

This goal may seem hard to achieve, but it's being implemented nonetheless, and similar protection measures are being adopted in the aerospace, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries. For example, in February of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Rockville, MD) announced that it would require linear barcodes on labels of thousands of drugs to protect patients from medication errors. The rules call for barcodes on most prescription-drug packages and certain over-the-counter drug packages used in hospitals, with each barcode containing a drug's National Drug Code number, strength, and dosage. Such systems have already reduced medication errors in some hospitals by as much as 85%. Makers of barcodes and scanners should see a dividend, as should several imaging companies now working quietly toward readers capable of reading 2-D data-matrix codes on individual pills.

Barcode and 2-D data-matrix reading is a target market for a growing number of smart-camera vendors, including Cognex (Natick, MA), DVT (Duluth, GA), RVSI Acuity (Nashua, NH), and Vision Components (Ettlingen, Germany). Omron Electronics (Schaumburg, IL), a subsidiary of The Omron Group (Kyoto, Japan), has adapted an approach that combines both optical and RF means. David Quebbemann, director of marketing at Omron Electronics, says that users want an end solution for data tracking and tracing management. His company will offer a system that, for example, optically reads and verifies a barcoded soup recipe, prints the label, and writes information about the can and ingredients onto an RFID tag on a case of cans. After the case reaches a Wal-Mart warehouse and the can reaches the display shelf, the only remaining question will be how long it will take to warm the soup for dinner.

CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail:

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