Canadian Security Magazine

Securing the supply chain

By Andrew Wareing   

News Data Security

The usefulness of radio frequency identification (RFID) as a logistics tool has long been known but there are those who are heralding another potential use — it’s use as a way to know, not only where an item is in the supply chain but whether or not it’s secure.

Consider, for instance, the Canadian military’s involvement in
Afghanistan. It takes a lot of materiel for the military to operate in
a war zone and much of it is a tempting target for insurgents either
hoping to upgrade their level of armaments or to strike a blow at their
enemy. Col. Mike Boomer, chief of operational support, transformation
with the Canadian Operational Support Command, which currently uses the
technology to track supplies to troops in Afghanistan, says it’s his
job to introduce new concepts to the Canadian military leadership and
last year’s takeover of NATO troops by Canada resulted in an
opportunity to adopt RFID technology for its supply chain.

“In the past, militaries used to rely on the notion that we could
predict what we would require and where. We even had tables that would
predict what an army, on the move against a robust enemy, would fire in
rounds, require so many gallons of fuel and so on,” he says. “Just on
the basis of mass, we would fill the pipeline based on those
requirements and it worked well when you had huge militaries clashing
along a certain area. But it doesn’t work well when you have small,
light forces distributed all over the place. We can have a million
people out there but they are in small groups spread out (around the
world) so the statistics become badly skewed.”

The Canadian forces have what is known as a “closed loop” supply chain
that starts in Montréal and ends in Kandahar, Afghanistan that supplies
troops with everything from toilet paper to tanks. The concern is about
keeping safe what is coming through.

“There are things we have that the opposition would like to get their
hands on,” says Boomer. “It (RFID) will help us to detect tampering, in
some cases. In fact, some of our systems will become tamper proof. If
you try to tamper with it, like prying open a (container) door, the tag
will scream. We should be able to program expected routes and, if
something deviates, have the system scream back to us here.”


RFID is most common in the retail environment and in that realm, is
known as a passive form of the technology. A reader sends out a signal
that energizes an antenna on a small tag attached to the item picks up
the radio signal and, though conduction, energizes a small chip that
reacts to the signal. The tag can be used to track items in the store,
including if it is on its way out the door without having been paid
for. This is a low-cost version of the technology with the tags costing
well under one dollar.

However, other RFID tags can also be active. The tag has a transmitter
that sends out information to waiting readers and, because of the price
of the tags, is usually reserved for tracking high-value items. And
there are combinations of the two. Discussions are also taking place
around the addition of sensors that can sense important conditions such
as temperature and attempts at tampering.

“RFID and supply chain management probably gets the big part of media
attention but it represents a very small amount of today’s RFID
deployment,” says Bob Moroz, president of RFID Canada in Markham, Ont. 
“There are thousands of applications of RFID that get very little
coverage or attention. Some of them are based on identification and
some on improved traceability.”

Moroz adds that people in the security industry looking for their
opportunities are going to have to understand the technology from the
physics side of radio frequencies and the limits on it posed by the
environment it is being used in to the business application side.

“It all depends on what you’re trying to do and the worst thing you can
do is try to put the technology in front of the solution. Find out the
requirements that are needed, build the solution goals and then try and
pick the technology that is best suited for that.”

“RFID technology is really nothing new,” says Tony Sabetti,
vice-president of RF solutions for Sirit, based in Toronto. “The
ability to have a passive tag that can be interrogated by a reader has
been around for 20 years. What is new is the harmonization among the
manufacturers of that tag to settle on a new protocol and a new
frequency: Generation II UHF…today, it’s more like the pipeline
theory where it goes in one place and comes out the other. And yes,
some infrastructure is there with the companies that have been most
proactive. But the idea of getting peeks at the transfers in the middle
of the pipeline, that infrastructure is not there. People are looking
at implementing it and, as they implement the infrastructure, they get
better visibility. And, as they get better visibility, you get better
protection of your assets in transit.”

EPCGlobal is an international standards organization that has, over the
past few years, been working on setting up a standard for RFID that can
be applied internationally.

“EPCGlobal was created, essentially to take what (the Massachusettes
Institute of Technology) had invented and commercialize it and generate
technology-based solutions, based on industry-user requirements,” says
N. Arthur Smith, CEO of EPCGlobal Canada in Toronto, Ont. “To stand
back and look at it from a 10,000-foot level, it’s the first ever
initiative that has brought together the users — multi-national
corporations — and asked them the question: ”˜What business process do
you want to drive with this new technology?’

“It’s not technology looking for a solution; it’s users saying ”˜This is
the problem we have that I foresee in my supply chain in the future and
these are the requirements I need to solve,’” he says.

EPCGlobal is working with over 1,000 companies in an effort to
standardize passive and active tags, radio frequency protocols and
other issues all relating to the use of the tags.

Although many of the uses of RFID in the past have been considered
“closed loop” applications — tracking of parcels by courier companies,
airport baggage handling or military shipments, for example  — Sabetti
says RFID is a technology finding its way into “open loop” applications
such as shipments from supplier to retailer.

“An open loop is something like what a company like Wal-Mart wants to
do,” he says. “For example, they want Proctor and Gamble products from
manufacturing factories around the world to be routed through Proctor
and Gamble distribution centres, then through Wal-Mart distribution
channels and eventually to Wal-Mart stores. In order to make that
system work seamlessly, Wal-Mart has to agree with all 40,000 of its
suppliers on what the tags will look like, what data to collect, how to
process it and so on.”

“As we see this go into the consumer market, of course we are consumers
of consumer goods from the civilian market and it would be foolish if
we did not have this data to be able to reuse it in our own system,”
says Boomer. “It would be very stupid to have someone ”˜fat finger’ in
the information when there is an RFID tag there that we can get that
information from automatically.”

That’s good for knowing how many rolls of toilet paper one has. But for
pharmaceutical companies that have proprietary rights on a particular
medication, or just want to make sure the right amount of medications
are getting to pharmacists and not being diverted away, the use of RFID
is also proving particularly useful, especially since the United States
Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidelines for
“e-pedigrees,” electronic records that allow drug shipments to be
traced from manufacturers to pharmacists.

Smith says the promise of RFID is to track items right through the
supply chain and, through that ability assure their pedigree, knowing
they haven’t been stopped, diverted or delayed, which would all be
indications of attempts at theft or tampering. EPCGlobal is in the
process of running a couple of trials through Asia and into the United
States. However, the infrastructure is still being built and standards
are still in the process of being set. EPCGlobal is “in the first
inning of a nine-inning game. 

“The FDA put a stamp in the ground and said, ”˜we are going to demand
e-pedigrees are in place.’ Florida is the first state out with a
regulation for that, subsequently followed by California,” says Smith.
“Across the U.S., out of concern for patient safety and making sure
that all drugs are properly monitored, there is a requirement that
every item produced within the drug supply chain where you ship an
item, is going to require a serialized number assigned to that product
and, as it is shipped through the supply chain, the electronic pedigree
must be produced.

“You can imagine the administrative bureaucracy if you tried to
administer that manually and the documents that would flow,” he says.
“The challenge has been, how do we move that to an RFID structure and
that’s what we’ve done in producing an e-pedigree guideline.”

Sabetti says the technology for tracking large items through the
shipping process is fairly mature but “there is a transition we’re
going through where shipping companies and the owners of assets are
trying to get to the next level of granularity. That level of
granularity is described as the pallet- or case-level tracking. We are
in a phase now where that activity is ramping up in its installation.”

 “Whole technologies are based on how inventors invent and people come
up with new ideas. It’s evolving, very much like how the Internet and
e-mail grew,” says Smith. “Once the infrastructure is in place, I think
all the other applications will start spreading like wildfire as new
ways to use this technology are found. Right now, we’re just at the
very beginning. It’s the first wave of this technology that has come to
the marketplace and you’re just about to see a massive wave of new
inventions, new ways of using this technology that will change
everything we currently know about it.”

Boomer adds that tracking from moment to moment can also be cost
prohibitive because it would require active tags which are far more
expensive, not just for the units themselves, but for the use of
communications satellites to track it. And some of that information is
also superfluous. An active tag reporting on the location of a
container won’t change its condition much from one minute to the next
as it’s being ferried over the ocean, for instance. That’s where
information systems need to be geared to handle the data according to
the requirements of those tasked with handling it.

“The biggest thing for it now is the buy-in,” says Moroz. “Most
companies today are being exposed to the technology. I think they’ve
heard of RFID and have some general understanding of it. But they don’t
have a strong understanding of what the technology is about, how to
cost justify it and how to integrate it into their systems.
Unfortunately, there’s not that many people out there who understand it
who can help in that area.”

Sabetti recommends installers and integrators access information about
RFID through online sources and “anything from RFID For Dummies which
is available from, to a five-day course where you go into a
lab, install a system, write code, attach tags and so on.”

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