The Role of RFID in a more Transparent Textile and Apparel Supply Chain
By Belinda Carp
What is RFID? RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and it is a method used for tracking goods via wireless signals, in order to transfer data between microchips. The chips are typically inserted into tags or cards which contain electronically-stored information and transmit a radio signal.
What is the role of RFID in the textile supply chain? In the textile and clothing supply chain, RFID helps companies to improve item-level accuracy and improve the efficiency of the global retail supply chain and the transparency of the textile supply chain. The visibility gained by RFID results in a reduction in waste and therefore lower consumption of natural resources, and is therefore increasingly important as textile companies employ technology and incorporate changes to improve their environmental and social responsibility across the supply chain.
How does it work? An RFID system comprises three main components, namely:
an RFID reader; and
an RFID inventory management computer software.
RFID tags Electronic tags are attached to items of stock. Each tag is digitally coded with information about the item’s characteristics, such as its size, color, price, age and/or date, and country of manufacture.
The tag helps to improve the traceability of an individual item, and is often provided with the labeling solutions, in a hang tag, or care label. Labels which contain QR codes can be scanned by consumers who wish to learn more about the supply chain that produced their goods.
Tags can also be attached to a batch of items. Such tags contain information about all the items in the batch, including the total number of items contained within the batch.
There are two types of RFID tags: active and passive.
Active RFID tags have a battery which supplies the power for communication. They send out alerts which inform the reader of their location and are therefore useful for tracking goods.
Passive RFID tags do not have a battery and therefore cost less. Instead, the RFID reader provides them with the energy needed to send and receive signals.
RFID Reader The information in the tags is picked up on an RFID reader via radio waves. The reader gathers data from the tags by transmitting and receiving radio frequency signals to and from the electronic tags.
The data collected on the RFID reader are then accumulated and presented to the user via RFID inventory management computer software.
There are two types of RFID readers: portable and non-portable.
Portable readers include handheld devices, which are mostly used for counting purposes.
Non-portable readers include so-called walkthrough gates which are installed at the entrances and exits of the warehouse and which detect the items and store their data in the digital database as soon as the items pass through the gate. The walkthrough gates act as security guards and immediately alert the warehouse staff if someone tries to steal a product from the warehouse,
RFID Inventory Management Computer Software The RFID inventory management computer software creates a central database of information, and enables users to refresh, update, read, analyze, and react to data which have been gathered.
The database stores information about various items present in the warehouse inventory, such as their time of arrival and manufacturer details.
Having an efficient inventory management system in place can help a company to cut costs and automate its inventory management processes.
Who Needs RFID? RFID technology is regarded as key to getting 100% reliability relating to the location of a shipped item at any given time, and the time at which it reached its destination. The information is valuable to the logistics company and to apparel manufacturing companies which rely heavily on logistics.
Examples of sectors in the textile and apparel supply chain which benefit from RFID technology are:
companies offering industrial laundering services, such as those which clean uniforms and/or hospital garments and linens;
companies offering clothing distribution services;
Companies offering industrial laundering services attach RFID tags permanently to the items of clothing or linen which are regularly laundered. These permanent tags take the form of small buttons or color-coded plastic discs which are hard and resilient enough to withstand numerous washes at high temperatures.
Some RFID tag manufacturers have developed woven clothing labels which incorporate RFID technology. Some designer brands have incorporated stitched tags on to garments to protect (and differentiate) their goods from counterfeit goods – in a way which is similar to, but more efficient than, gathering information manually and scanning barcodes using a hand-held reader when an item enters or leaves a warehouse.
How Does RFID Help to Create A More Transparent Textile Supply Chain? When RFID is used in the apparel industry, the supply chain becomes more transparent and customers are better able to track where their products have come from, and how they have been processed. The technology can be used in digital care labels which provide consumers with a compelling mobile experiences and bespoke care advice to lengthen the life of a garment and provide styling advice.
As well as providing increased transparency, RFID labeling can provide consumers with information about a garment—such as how to wash it in order to give the garment a longer life, what materials are used in its production, and where to recycle the garment after use.
RFID also helps to create a more connected supply chain, which can help the industry to be more aware of product inventory. The improvements in inventory management and traceability provided by RFID enable brands to optimize their production and ultimately reduce excess and waste, as well as improving the bottom line and brand loyalty.
Which Companies Provide RFID Technology to the Textile and Apparel Supply Chain? CircularID, developed by Eon, is a platform which collates relevant garment-specific data including: materials, origin, price, style, and recycling instructions. It was developed to improve transparency and communication throughout fashion supply chains.
RFiD Thread, made by ADETEX.ID, looks and feels much like a normal thread, but it stores digital information and can be scanned from a distance, using RFID technology. The thread lasts for the garment’s lifetime, reduces waste throughout the entire supply chain, and drives the transition to a circular system in which materials can be perpetually recycled. In addition to facilitating the recycling of garments, the content thread can also be valuable for supply chain management, anti-theft protocols, and for creating “smart” connected clothing.
Avery Dennison provides RFID technology to digitize clothing and footwear items, and to connect these with social network applications which, for example, would allow customers to share their outfits with friends or receive personal styling consultations from brands.
Applied DNA Sciences is a technology company which has created a bio-based marker that can be sprayed on to cotton, allowing individual fibers to be tracked and identified throughout the value chain.
Conclusion The need for a transparent supply chain is growing, in order for companies to demonstrate their environmental and social responsibility to an ever more socially-aware customer base. People want to know where their goods were made, by whom, and from what materials. They want to know about their impact on the environment and on other people. Therefore, as technology develops and the digitalization of the industry increases, the role of RFID becomes ever more important.
A growing number of well-informed consumers with a social conscience need RFID—to keep them informed about the impact of their clothing on the people and planet around them, and to enable them to make informed decisions regarding the garment’s care throughout its lifetime, and its appropriate disposal at the end-of-life.
Belinda Carp is freelance business consultant and writer, specializing in textiles sustainability and communications strategies.