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UW-Madison workgroup helps state companies tap the power of RFID

Radio-frequency identification tags "wake up" when they're near a reader and can store and transmit a variety of product information, including its history, quantity, location and condition.
In the United States and elsewhere, hundreds of major companies are scurrying to develop strategies for implementing radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology after fall 2003 mandates from Wal Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense that their suppliers be RFID-compliant, tagging cases as well as pallets, by this year.

In Wisconsin, a recently formed university-industry workgroup and hands-on research laboratory at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison E-Business Consortium (UWEBC)
is helping many state companies exploit the technology's potential.

RFID allows manufacturers to write product data to "tags" that consist of a microchip and antenna. When they enter the field of a reader, the tags "wake up" and transmit the information wirelessly. Unlike bar codes, which are based on optical technology and can be read only one at a time, RFID allows companies to read multiple tags simultaneously — even when they are not in the line of sight. In addition, RFID can store more information than in a bar code.

Potential applications for RFID tags include inventory management, temperature sensing for refrigerated foods, and anti-theft or anti-tampering capabilities, among others.

The technology can help provide companies with accurate real-time data about product history, quantity, location, condition and more.
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Manufacturers could incorporate a tag into a product’s packaging or embed the tag in the product itself.

"That will allow them not only to manage their inventory better and to minimize the total cost in the supply chain, but at the same time, they'll be able to ensure that the product availability will remain high," said Raj Veeramani, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and director of the UWEBC.

He said RFID has implications for many Wisconsin industries, including manufacturing, biotechnology, paper and printing, packaging, and plastics.

"It's going to create new opportunities for them in terms of business development," he said. "And it's also going to allow them to become more competitive and productive."

Like many businesses worldwide, Wisconsin companies are struggling with how to apply RFID in their own markets. So to help those companies learn more about the technology's challenges and potential, to share lessons learned and leading practices, and to tap into the university's research capabilities, UWEBC launched its RFID workgroup in September 2003.

Members meet monthly to learn from experts and each other about RFID applications, technology and business issues, challenges and solutions. Member companies with RFID testing facilities often host meetings at their sites, providing the workgroup a firsthand understanding of the technology in action.

The group is compiling the knowledge it generates into useful decision tools and guidelines, such as a checklist of factors that negatively affect RFID performance, a tool that helps companies assess the level of relevance of RFID to their business, a tool that helps companies analyze their operations to identify where RFID would fit best, and a template that helps companies develop a business case for adopting RFID.

Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee has good reason to embrace the technology: Many of the companies affected by Wal Mart's mandate are Rockwell's customers.

"They are looking to Rockwell to be part of the solution," said Sujeet Chand, Rockwell chief technical officer and vice president. The company's controllers play a vital role in the RFID process, receiving data from the tags and routing products to the proper location.

He said the consortium has been very useful in sharing best practices, but RFID functionality issues, such as their poor read capability in the presence of metal or liquid, need further study.

"Research is needed for more effective methods to make these tags reliable," said Chand, who co-chairs the UWEBC workgroup's steering committee.

Lisa Benson, chief information officer of ORBIS Corporation and the committee's co-chair, agrees. Her company, a subsidiary of Menasha Corporation, is a leading manufacturer of plastic resuable packaging for use in a range of material-handling applications.

"One of the reasons we're part of the UW group is that we see a strong need to bring a more scientific approach to tag placement and antenna design issues," she said. "In addition, we look to leverage the university to recommend and develop thorough and efficient testing methodologies."

Some of that testing will occur at UW-Madison. In fall 2004, UWEBC unveiled the first phase of a hands-on laboratory where workgroup members can conduct structured experiments about everything from where on their product to place the tag to how to design a better antenna. When the lab is completely functional, it will include an experiment station focused on dock-door or portal applications, a conveyor system application, and an anechoic chamber to study antenna design and performance.

"It's not just a show-and-tell lab, but a place where we can help companies solve some of the problems they are facing," Veeramani said.

Waukesha-based RedPrairie, which develops supply-chain technology solutions, donated much of the infrastructure for the lab's portal-dock-door experiment station. RFID Project Manager Dave Matthias said the company saw an opportunity to help advance knowledge about the emerging technology and how businesses can use it to their advantage.

"It takes more than just understanding the technology," he said. "And that's where we see a university setting to bring all of these companies together to solve the problem."

For RedPrairie, learning more about RFID makes good business sense, as the company's products branch out into RFID-related applications.

"The more educated everybody becomes about RFID and how it works in the supply chain will allow companies to see how these tools that RedPrairie and other RFID suppliers have to offer bring more value," he said. "Just like bar codes are now seen everywhere, RFID over the next 20 years is going to be just as prevalent in the supply chain as bar codes are today."

Specialty paper manufacturer Appleton (located in Appleton, Wisconsin) has similar product-development goals. It pioneered cushioned labels that protect RFID components and help alleviate tag failures. But the company's desire to identify new markets and develop new products has enabled RFID Solutions Technical Specialist Tony Larsen to work several days a month in the UW-Madison RFID lab.

That experience, he said, has been an excellent learning tool for Appleton.

"Our company's mission is to show what our ideas can do for our customers," Larsen said. "We believe RFID technology will provide us with unique opportunities to apply our ideas. The UW RFID lab and the companies who use it are great tools to help us test and develop those ideas."

Renee Meiller with the UW-Madison College of Engineering can be reached at meiller@engr.wisc.edu. "At Work for Wisconsin" is a regular feature taking a look at science and technology advances from a UW-Madison perspective.

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