Provia Tackles RFID in a Twofold Manner Part Two: RFID Compliance

RFID Compliance

These days when radio frequency identification (RFID) is constantly on everyone's lips, and when every relevant enterprise application vendor is hedging its bets towards becoming RFID-ready or is even convincing the market that its RFID-compliant solution is exactly what the doctor (Wal-Mart, Target, Albertsons, and the US Department of Defense [DoD]) ordered, the typically quiet Provia Software (, a privately-held provider of supply chain execution (SCE) software solutions, naturally feels the time has come for it to be more vocal about its RFID endeavors, albeit after it has already put so much effort in terms of the proof of concept in the field.

Most recently, at the end of May, Provia announced at the Distribution/Computer Expo 2004 in Chicago, Illinois (US) that its ViaView event/alert management and decision support product plays a key role in offering visibility to supply chain data for companies supplying RFID-tagged products to Wal-Mart and other retailers.

As for addressing the burning issue of the Wal-Mart compliance deadline, at the end of 2003, Provia announced that its RFIDware bolt-on compliance kit fully meets all the technical requirements set forth by Wal-Mart at a recent meeting with the giant retailer's top suppliers. During its supplier meetings, Wal-Mart addressed most of its requirements for RFID compliance and identified which of the company's distribution centers will initially accept RFIS shipments. Namely, Wal-Mart will receive RFID compliant shipments at three distribution centers that service 150 Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Neighborhood Market stores across he country.

RFIDware is an electronic product code-compliant (also known as EPC), bolt-on, standalone RFID solution developed by Provia to enable product suppliers and third party logistics (3PL) suppliers with an existing warehouse management system (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or host/mainframe-based system to relatively easily become RFID compliant to vendors requiring RFID tracking of inbound pallets and cases. The product was announced in September at Frontline Supply Chain Week in Chicago. The EPC is a unique number that identifies a specific item in the supply chain by linking serial numbers to the product information stored in a central database, and which is stored on a RFID tag. Once it is retrieved from the tag, it can be associated with dynamic data such as where an item originated or the date of its production.

Provia's approach to this solution was to offer a bolt-on or drop-in product that works in conjunction with a company's existing logistics transactional software solution and process flows, which should put the suppliers back into control of prioritizing their IT projects because they could thereby supposedly be fairly easily and quickly compliant with Wal-Mart or the DoD requirements for RFID. The next step for them would then be to look at how they can reap the benefits of RFID internally within their own operations.

This is Part Two of an eight-part note.

Parts One through Five detail recent announcements.

Parts Six and Seven will discuss the market impact.

Part Eight will note challenges and make user recommendations.

Parts One through Four will be published between August 11 and 14.

Part Five to Eight will be published August 18 to 21.


The principle of how RFIDware works is straightforward—Wal-Mart shipments requiring RFID compliance will have order information sent to the packing station, where both RFID and non-RFID orders are picked and the case content verified. Then, routed orders requiring RFID compliance will be sent to the RFIDware station in the distribution center, where the appropriate RFID tag and label (often the printed label contains the tag) would be applied. Data about the shipment (e.g., order information, carton contents, etc.) is associated with the RFID tag and the EPC information will then sent to the end retailer via some electronic means. Once tagged, the product will also be physically shipped to the end retailer (i.e., Wal-Mart) with full RFID compliance.

The module's touted advantage is that it adds RFID to existing logistics systems, such as WMS, ERP or some order management system, in a quick-fix manner as to handle all communication to Wal-Mart. It also provides rapid implementation of specialized labels with embedded RFID tags, which are applied at packing stations or on the dock. Further, it also enables a path to full RFID enablement. The product accommodates both product line RFID support (i.e., it is configurable by a particular product) and customer RFID support (i.e., it is configurable by a particular customer and consignee).

As for the additional hardware and software requirements, a centralized RFIDware Microsoft Windows-based server for the entire enterprise (in a corporate data center) should suffice, albeit, optionally, a Savant reader management system and RFID readers can be added to the solution in distribution centers to add pre-shipment tag verification. Namely, many middleware vendors have been developing products that filter data from RFID readers. Most of the products are based on Savant's, distributed software created by EPCglobal to provide smooth data and to find information related to EPCs. The users will also have to purchase EPC numbers from EPCglobal, the organization behind the evolving RFID standards, and which assigns these numbers to identify the manufacturer, product and serial number. For additional information on EPC see Electronic Product Code (EPC): A Key to RFID.

In mid-2003, however, Provia announced full intrinsic RFID support for its ViaWare WMS, the central component of its ViaWare SCE suite. Soon after, the vendor introduced its live warehouse prototype, complete with full RFID-enabled WMS support, which included RFID support for many WMS activities, including pallet and case tracking; automated receiving; put-away verification; picking verification; cycle counting; kit building and back-flushing; mixed pallet auditing; and trailer loading capabilities.

General availability for the Provia ViaWare WMS with RFID support took place in September 2003, at which time, Provia was likely the first SCE vendor offering full RFID support for a WMS in a standard product, which was already compliant with the most recent EPC specifications at the time. Provia has also worked with a high-profile client, Gillette, to test RFID support as part of the client's plan to track selected RFID-tagged items through the supply chain. For details see RFID Case Study: Gillette and Provia.

Unlike other vendors announcing support of RFID in anticipation of serving the market need, Provia was the first supply chain software company at the time to actually be involved in testing RFID technology with a large client for real-world use. Not only was the implementation meant to satisfy the Wal-Mart mandate, but also for gaining real time visibility into the supply chain, as to be able to share this improved visibility with the customers, which is supposed to yield many benefits for users, including increased shipping accuracy, inventory accuracy, and reduced inventory shrinkage.

By focusing on pallet and case product distribution, Provia believes to have taken the lead in developing the foundation for companies who realize the need to incorporate RFID technology into their supply chain. According to Provia, the key to initial success in RFID is not in the store and at "smart shelves", but in the distribution environment. To that end, with an RFID-enabled ViaWare WMS, users will have access to totally automated logistics tracking processes, enabling products to pass through the distribution center, in many cases eliminating the need for manual checking and barcode scanning.

RFID technology tags would thereby be attached to cases and pallets, enabling each piece to be uniquely identified, since these tags transmit EPCs and communicate wirelessly to other devices over radio frequency (RF) waves. For example, ViaWare WMS would request data from a Savant server, which would return the pallet or case data for the aforementioned transactions like automated receiving, put-away verification, picking verification, cycle counting and so on. Then, ViaWare WMS would send key updates to Wal-Mart's corporate PML servers for transactions like product receipts, inventory updates or shipment confirmations. Therefore, RFID tags could help companies better track and control inventory—from warehouses, to loading docks, to trucks and finally when the customer receives the product. As a result of these efficiencies they may eventually promote, RFID tags may one day replace bar codes.

The product's touted advantage is that it makes use of existing WMS features (e.g., end-to-end serial number tracking of cases and each units; serial number masking and patterns, etc.), whereby transactions already support large data blocks. It is also designed to allow incremental adoption, since barcode and RFID technologies can coexist, whereas transactions can be enabled separately (in either pilot or production mode). Like its RFIDware sibling, RFID-enabled ViaWare WMS also enables both product line RFID support and customer RFID support while handling all communication with Wal-Mart, but it enables more holistic RFID tags use in many SCE processes, as mentioned above. On the other hand, RFIDware has an advantage of implementation speed (weeks rather than months), given that it delivers the RFID compliance without integrating the RFID data into the suppliers' own enterprise systems. Namely, embedding RFID data within an existing logistics transactional system would typically take at least several months.

Gaining Real World Experience

Throughout the process of designing its RFID-compliant solutions, Provia has drawn upon its heightened degree of RFID knowledge and experience owing to its May 2003 initiated membership with former Auto-ID Center (the now, previously described EPCglobal, a not-for-profit research organization headquartered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], and which is designing the critical elements and creating global standards for the next generation bar code—called the EPC Network, which was also mentioned earlier), and causal partnerships with the MIT and several leading retailers.

Established in 1999 by The Gillette Company, Procter & Gamble, the Uniform Code Council (UCC), and other interested sponsors (end users and technology companies), EPCglobal and its over ninety members have since been working to create standards and technology solutions needed to establish a new network for tracking items that use RFID tags that can be employed within a supply chain. The EPC Network RFID tags are designed to help participating companies better track and control inventory—from warehouses, to loading docks, to trucks, and even on store shelves. For additional information on EPC see Electronic Product Code (EPC): A Key to RFID.

Provia's decision to join the Auto-ID Center comes was part of an ongoing RFID project with The Gillette Company—a founding member of the Auto-ID Center. By working with Gillette on this first full-scale RFID project, Provia was at the time the first SCE vendor with real world experience in RFID and at a tier one warehouse environment. As a result, Gillette now has a distribution facility utilizing the RFID technology where Provia's ViaWare WMS has been used for some time to track and monitor RFID tags on select products as they arrive and depart the facility. The ability to track products through their production life cycle has enabled Gillette not only to reduce losses resulting from out-of-stock, stolen or lost products, but also to improve efficiencies across its operations by monitoring the status and location of products.

For details see RFID Case Study: Gillette and Provia.

Provia Partners with Printronix

Having also experienced some occasional auxiliary challenges of the lack of availability of printers capable of delivering RFID, barcode and human readable labels recently in April, Provia has formally partnered with Printronix Inc., the leading integrated supply chain printing solutions manufacturer. As a certified systems integrator and value-added reseller (VAR), Provia will include Printronix's RFID solutions as part of the company's overall RFID solutions offering, and work with Printronix to support end users with RFID project planning and deployment strategies. To become a certified RFID partner, Provia had to demonstrate an existing RFID expertise, as well as the ability to integrate and install RFID hardware, an area in which the company has tremendous experience, due to its German parent, Viastore Systems, a developer of material handling and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) for warehouses.

As a certified partner, Provia is now authorized to resell and support Printronix' Smart Label Developer's Kit, which helps companies create applications of RFID technology within their own environments, and Smart Label Pilot Printer, which helps companies migrate from a development environment to RFID pilot activities. Printronix was reportedly the first manufacturer with an ultra high frequency (UHF), class one smart label solution available commercially to help Wal-Mart, the DoD, their suppliers and other retailers conform to RFID specifications.

This concludes Part Two of an eight-part note.

Parts One through Five detail recent announcements.

Parts Six and Seven will discuss the market impact.

Part Eight will note challenges and make user recommendations.

Parts One through Four will be published between August 11 and 14.

Part Five to Eight will be published August 18 to 21.

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