Wireless technologies have been a critical part of the way UPS does business since the $33 billion company started using scanners to track packages in 1985. Now UPS is looking into the latest wireless technologies to infiltrate the world of logistics: radio frequency identification.Wireless technologies have been a critical part of the way UPS does business since the $33 billion company started using scanners to track packages in 1985. Now UPS is looking into the latest wireless technologies to infiltrate the world of logistics:\u00a0radio frequency identification.The company is looking to adopt\u00a0RFID\u00a0first in its supply-chain operations, where multiple pilot projects are underway, says David Barnes, vice president of IS at UPS in Atlanta.UPS offers supply-chain services including distribution, freight forwarding and customs brokerage to its customers - some of which are under the gun to begin tagging cases and pallets with RFID labels to comply with mandates from Wal-Mart, Target, Albertsons, Best Buy and other retailers.UPS has started testing pilot applications of RFID technology in select supply-chain settings. In one pilot, UPS is putting RFID tags on its trucks. Weather-resistant readers monitor when the vehicles arrive at and depart from UPS facilities - and take the burden off drivers to sign in and out, Barnes says.In another pilot, UPS is tagging reusable containers used to carry packages through the company's automated shipping facilities. The RFID labels replace bar codes, which lack durability, he says.RFID technology has been around for decades, but its application in supply-chain scenarios is immature. Retailer mandates are accelerating adoption, but there are still kinks.One of those kinks is performance. In a distribution center scenario, readers need to scan RFID tags as items move along conveyer belts - often at a fast clip. UPS' Louisville, Ky., facility handles 300,000 packages per hour, for example.Part of the difficulty is package positioning - a key component of UPS' automated sorting processes. The company's current bar-code-based systems use tunnel-like scanners to read label information. The bar-code scanners require line of sight to read a label and can only read one box at a time.That's less efficient than RFID-based systems, which read multiple packages simultaneously and don't require line of sight. But the bar-code-based systems know more about the order of packages moving along a belt. The information they collect about package sequence is used to route packages to the appropriate loading spots.RFID today doesn't know package sequences, Barnes says. "That's an issue that has to be worked through."Another potential issue is data overload. The network traffic generated by RFID tags and readers could be astronomical if vendors don't figure out a way for systems to filter out unnecessary status information and detect and handle only the exceptions. "It's the data side of RFID that's really going to be [quite a] concern," Barnes says.For RFID to go mainstream, global standards are critical, Barnes says. Until they're established, readers need to be able to handle multiple tag frequencies and be updatable with firmware so they don't become obsolete, he says.RFID has to come out of the lab and get into operational environments so people can really see how the products perform, Barnes says. "There are dramatic gaps between what people say the products do and what they do in the real world," he says.At UPS, Barnes expects to start seeing some RFID projects move into production mode in 2005.A ramped handheldMeanwhile, UPS continues to tweak the bar-code scanning systems used to track the 13 million packages it delivers on an average day. The company is on the fourth generation of its Delivery Information Acquisition Device (DIAD), the ubiquitous handheld unit UPS drivers carry.Due to be launched next year, the DIAD IV offers a slew of connectivity options - including either a General Packet Radio Service or Code Division Multiple Access radio; an acoustical modem for dial-up access; 802.11b for transmitting in UPS centers; and Bluetooth and an infrared port for communicating with peripheral devices and customer PCs.The newest addition to the DIAD IV is a GPS capability. UPS plans to use the GPS technology to track drivers' locations and provide more detailed mapping capabilities. The Windows CE devices also will have color screens for the first time. The color options will help draw drivers' attention to urgent messages, such as an unscheduled pickup, Barnes says.