In today’s technological world, moving raw materials or goods between locations has become easier with radio frequency identification (RFID). A partnership between Tuskegee University’s Brimmer College of Business and Information Science and Auburn University’s RFID Lab is giving supply chain management students hands-on experience managing real-world data for some of the retail and apparel industry’s most well-known companies.
“RFID comes in many different flavors and has become a catch-all term for several hundred different technologies that fall under that umbrella and that trace back several decades,” says Justin Patton, director of Auburn’s RFID Lab. “The technology offers the retail sector greater efficiency and more precise inventory control, tracking and product safety beyond the barcode’s capacity.”
Started in 2015, Auburn’s RFID Lab has focused on developing and integrating RFID and other emerging technologies in retail, aviation, supply chain and manufacturing applications.
So far, six Tuskegee students have rotated through the RFID Lab as data analysts, where they helped evaluate and verify the accuracy of RFID data collected through the supply chain for the lab’s corporate partners.
“When you have a group of students like this who are learning this technology as it develops, the sky’s the limit for them,” says Jack Crumbly, associate professor in Tuskegee’s Brimmer College. “Professional opportunities abound for these graduates with suppliers, manufacturers, distribution centers and retailers. The entire industry is looking for data solutions to reduce costs, so a group of students with hands-on experience like this certainly has a tremendous employment advantage when they graduate.”
Companies who partner with the lab are in contact with the students as they do data analysis.
“Our experience certainly helped me understand concepts in the classroom more,” says Brittany Parks, who graduated in May with a degree in supply chain management. “Understanding those concepts better helped us have deeper conversations with corporate representatives and about the troubles they’re having — that helped us connect better with them and those we’ll interview with for jobs.”
And the students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the experience. Crumbly notes that Tuskegee possessed unique partnerships with corporations it was able to introduce to RFID Lab leaders. Likewise, through his and his students’ involvement, other corporate partners are becoming more familiar with Tuskegee, a historically black university. That dovetails, Crumbly says, into these companies’ objectives to cultivate a diverse workforce.
The partnership expanded this past spring to include student and faculty involvement in Chain Integration Pilot or CHIP. CHIP is the first supply chain project integrating item-level data streams — information pulled from attached RFID tags — from various stakeholders into a blockchain network. As part of the project, the RFID Lab is working with industry partners to develop new ways to efficiently move products through the supply chain to consumers.
The lab’s soon-to-be-implemented CHIP Project will be a way for retail and apparel companies to communicate by better connecting the digital dots between global suppliers and their product inventories through a common record of information. It will be a blockchain — data collected through the flow of products through the supply chain and maintained across several computers linked in a peer-to-peer network.
“By conducting the CHIP project and incorporating industry stakeholders around the globe, the Auburn University RFID Lab aims to encourage the adoption of serialized data and blockchain technologies and usher in the next generation of supply chain innovation,” Patton says.
Tuskegee joins a growing list of more than 20 educational, retail, apparel and supply chain partners that will participate directly in the proof-of-concept and support the project as a collective working group. These include well-known commercial brands like Under Armor and Spanx, and technology solution providers like Avery Dennison, IBM and Zebra Technologies. Together, the partners’ contributions will range from supporting data capture systems and other Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, developing blockchain solutions, ensuring compliance with global standards and experienced project leadership.
A recent addition includes a partnership with Hyperledger, a global collaboration hosted by the Linux Foundation that aims to advance cross-industry blockchain technologies. Hyperledger is a multi-venture, multi-stakeholder effort that includes various enterprise blockchain and distributed ledger technologies. As a new member, Auburn’s RFID Lab joins industry leaders in finance, banking, IoT, supply chain, manufacturing and technology, and will be positioned to inform and influence the direction and application of blockchain technologies across the globe.
Due to the sophistication of current supply chains, data exchange between partners can be challenging. The CHIP project aims to address this by connecting the digital dots on a global scale. By capturing and contributing item-level data streams into a blockchain solution, an item-level record of product information will be created for goods flowing from one supply chain stakeholder to the next.
For more information on the RFID Lab, visit rfid.auburn.edu.