The new £8 million ESRC investment in the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre has paved the way for a collaboration between University of Sussex academics, high-tech company Advanced Material Development (AMD) and retail giant Walmart – exploring how quantum digital technology could reduce metal waste and revolutionise employment in the retail sector.

Sociologists at the research centre are working with quantum physics researchers, AMD and Walmart to understand how more environmentally-friendly radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) are developed, implemented and affect employment in the retail sector.

Materials scientist Professor Alan Dalton and his team have created an alternative to metal tags on clothing and food by developing antennas based on graphene inks which can be printed onto paper, creating a sustainable solution to an essential part of the retail supply chain.

"The nanotech ink we create in our lab has loads of important, sustainable applications. We're excited that our world-leading research has paved the way for Walmart and other retailers to bin metal-dependent tags and replace them with our much more eco-friendly answer," said Professor Dalton.

As part of the project, social sciences and management studies academics from the Digit Centre at the University of Sussex Business School will examine the learning process from product development to implementation and its impact on labour requirements and productivity.

Professor Jackie O'Reilly, Co-Director for the new Digital Futures at Work Research Centre at the University of Sussex Business School, said: "The potential for this technology is huge. Implementation of RFID systems can transform supply chain efficiencies for large companies with complex supplier bases and can significantly reduce inventory count time from hundreds to a handful of hours. While this is hugely beneficial for companies, there is clearly the potential for huge consequences on employment rates, worker satisfaction and wellbeing that need to be adequately investigated.

"This is a unique opportunity to work with brilliant physics researchers to understand their world and what they create; to understand how these hard-core science ideas are exported into the business world; and to understand how these decisions affect the way work is constructed and what kinds of jobs people get as a result of major companies adopting these new technologies."