A partnership between Tuskegee University’s Brimmer College of Business and Information Science and Auburn University’s RFID Lab is giving its 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, or radio frequency identification, technology has become quite pervasive in the consumer market. Today, RFID can be found in a wide range of products, including retail security tags, pet microchips, airline baggage tags, and guest experience bracelets at amusement parks and entertainment venues — just to name a few. It has become a real-time asset to the supply chain — the movement and transfer of raw materials or resources to a final product or service.
“’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,” said 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.”
Since its debut at Auburn University in 2015, the research institute has focused on developing and integrating RFID and other emerging technologies in retail, aviation, supply chain and manufacturing applications. Patton noted that the lab’s partnerships have expanded to include partners across the Auburn campus, as well as to Tuskegee, which he credits with enriching his team’s efforts.
“There is a great value in students from different universities and different backgrounds working side-by-side together,” Patton said. “When you put that type of diversity together on a team, it works. Our students really do bring their different backgrounds to their work, which adds new and unique perspectives to our efforts.”
Dr. Jack Crumbly, an associate professor in the Brimmer College, noted that, to date, six Tuskegee students have rotated through the RFID Lab as data analysts. In this role, they help 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,” Crumbly emphasized. “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.”
Patton noted that about a third of the RFID Lab’s team during the 2018-19 academic year were comprised of Tuskegee students.
“When Dr. Crumbly comes to us with ‘good’ students, they’re good students,” he added. “When they come to work with us, I know they’re the best in the class and they’re the ones who want to go out and get jobs and work in the industry. The students we’ve worked with from Tuskegee have been extremely high quality — and, because of the way Dr. Crumbly stays engaged with them on site, it’s like our lab gets a two-for-one benefit through his and his students’ combined contributions.”
One of those students, Ashley McCain of Birmingham, who graduated with a degree in supply chain management in May 2019, isn’t taking her RFID Lab experience — or the advantages it will give her professionally — for granted.
“This experience gave me greater insight into how to read data and use it to troubleshoot issues throughout the supply chain,” she said. “We’ve benefited from the experience of working on a team and collaborating with others — that’s been valuable to me in both my classroom studies and my job-hunting efforts.”
Brittany Parks, a Carson, California, native who also graduated in May 2019 with a degree in supply chain management, agreed with McCain.
“I’ve definitely benefited from being able to interact with data in this environment,” said Parks, who as a former Walmart cashier, viewed the scope of the supply chain from a new vantage point through her work with the RFID Lab. “In addition, it’s been a real benefit working with the companies who want to better understand how data analytics can improve data transparency and help retailers better understand what’s going on throughout the supply chain.”
Parks is now putting her knowledge and experience to work for Apple, where she is an Apple Pay business operations project manager. She said her RFID Lab experience has been an asset to both her technical skillset and the soft skills required of her job.
“The RFID Lab prepared me to be flexible and adaptable in new environments. When I started at the lab, I had no clue how to use any of the platforms necessary to perform my duties; but with time and the support of my team, I learned,” she recalled. “Now, I realize that I learned much more than I initially thought, and I was even able to help one of my new colleagues with an assignment.”
“As an RFID Lab data analyst, I looked at information to tell a story, which is very similar to what I’m doing now,” added McCain, whose RFID Lab experience helped her land her current position with defense, civil and cybersecurity giant Raytheon’s operations in McKinney, Texas. She is part of the company’s Global Trade Leadership Development Function, where she ensures Raytheon complies with federal export regulations by analyzing products, countries and related guidelines to decide what type of documentation is required to transport items overseas.
“Although I don’t work with RFID technology in my current position,” she continued, “the skills I acquired certainly have been transferable — especially working on a team, as well as identifying project needs and establishing next steps.”
Building a professional network
The students aren’t just amassing valuable hands-on experience — they are marketing themselves among company representatives participating in RFID Lab events by speaking one-on-one about their project contributions and their post-graduation career aspirations.
“The fact that our students are working with data from [our corporate partners] and they’re getting on the phone with their corporate contacts once a week is helping them build a professional network before they even graduate,” Patton said.
“Our experience [at the RFID Lab] certainly helped me understand concepts in the classroom more,” Parks said. “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.”
Crumbly said the students aren’t the only ones building a corporate network. He noted 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.
That dovetails, Crumbly continued, into these companies’ objectives to cultivate a diverse workforce. He said that Tuskegee’s existing corporate relationships, and those it’s developing through this partnership with Auburn, are becoming more keenly aware of the advantages of working with a historically black university — as well as placing its students in internships and employing its graduates.
“As faculty and as a university, our responsibilities don’t end with educating our students. It’s incumbent on us to mentor them as they seek out career opportunities,” Crumbly explained. “One way we do that is through our research collaborations with the private sector.”
“Our professors in supply chain management are why we receive so many career offers while we’re in school, and job opportunities once we graduate. They push us to be our best,” Parks said.
“They are always relating their own experiences to what we’re learning and are helping us make professional connections,” McCain added.
Expanding the partnership
The partnership expanded this past spring to include student and faculty involvement in CHIP — “CHain Integration Pilot.” 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, such as the latest fashionwear, 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 said.
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 Armour 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, and 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, as proven by Project Zipper, a national data exchange study conducted by the RFID Lab since 2017. As a result, supply chain touchpoints and the data they generate are often isolated from one another — a problem that the CHIP project aims to address 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 about the Auburn University RFID Lab, visit rfid.auburn.edu.
© 2019, Tuskegee University