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Wal-Mart Looks To New Uses For RFID

Retailer tests RFID to monitor frozen-food temperature and do mobile scanning.

As a greeter for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Supercenter in Lewisville, Texas, Mary Jane Wright gives customers a down-home welcome. Donning a bonnet festooned with fake daisies, Easter eggs, cellophane grass, and plastic carrots, Wright, 74, wants to spread a little cheer. "I wear the hat because it makes people laugh," she says, slapping a happy-face sticker on a reporter's coat collar. "It invites people to come in and shop."

While Wal-Mart greeters present this homespun image, behind the scenes at test venues like the Lewisville Supercenter the retailer is moving ahead with the state of the art in radio-frequency technologies and strategies.

Wal-Mart is an established leader in RFID, and more than 100 suppliers comply with its RFID-enabled inventory processes. Products such as tissue, ketchup, and lettuce come into the Lewisville Supercenter on RFID-tagged pallets, cases, and crates. The technology provides faster, more-accurate information on inventory, which speeds store stocking.

This year, Wal-Mart is looking to add mobility to RFID tag-reading in warehouses and simplify the process. In its Bentonville, Ark., lab, it's testing an RFID-enabled forklift that would read tags on pallets and transmit data through a wireless network to a warehouse-management system, which sends data on inventory to business applications.

Within six weeks, Wal-Mart plans to start running trials on second-generation RFID tags that use an ultra-high frequency and are based on global standards. "Once Gen 2 is out later this year, we'll begin to see quick adoption and larger tag purchases," says Simon Langford, Wal-Mart's manager of global RFID strategy.

Standards group EPCglobal Inc. is spearheading efforts for adoption of Gen 2 specifications by manufacturers of RFID tags, readers, printers, and antennas. Three classes are being developed, including semipassive tags that operate on low-power batteries. Working with suppliers to deploy those tags and create a temperature-sensor network for cold-storage food is a possibility within the next 18 months, Langford says. The network would monitor temperature so employees will know if goods thawed at any point during shipping, for example.

Semipassive tags automatically turn on and transmit a radio-frequency signal to an RFID reader according to preprogrammed intervals, such as every 30 minutes. Philips Semiconductor and Texas Instruments Inc. are among the chipmakers planning to develop such tags. Wal-Mart suppliers currently use passive tags, which are activated only when scanned by a reader.

Last week Wal-Mart began preliminary tests of the concept, installing RFID readers and antennas outside the freezer section at its Grand Prairie, Texas, Sam's Club to monitor stock levels and test the resiliency of the tags in freezing temperatures.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is refining existing technologies. Langford's RFID team recently redesigned its RFID readers to be thinner and slanted. The new design is 70% cheaper to manufacture and prevents people from putting soda cans or jackets on top. "These are the types of things you learn when you go out into the real world and discover how people really work," says Carolyn Walton, Wal-Mart's VP of corporate systems.

RFID is installed in 104 Wal-Mart stores, 36 Sam's Clubs, and three distribution centers. Wal-Mart plans to have RFID in 600 stores and 12 distribution centers by year's end.

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