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RFID expert says piecemeal approach won't work

Madison, Wis. -- Implementation of RFID must be done in a holistic manner if the efficiencies and controls the technology offers are to be truly realized, attendees at Friday's premiere of UW-Madison's RFID lab heard.

Those comments came from Patrick Sweeney, CEO of Virginia-based ODIN Technologies and author of RFID for Dummies, who gave the keynote address at the lab's open house - an event that also gave attendees a chance to see RFID in action.

The lab, within the Engineering Centers Building on the UW-Madison campus, has been operating since late last year as part of the UW E-Business Consortium. It is structured to become a major institution for RFID experimentation, with UW academics working hand-in-hand with businesses that use or have an interest in the technology.

It's a technology that was described on Friday as in need of a clearer, more comprehensive focus.

"Any time you have an industry where there's chaos, there's calamity, there's confusion — and nothing is more indicative of that than the RFID industry — you need a trusted source," Sweeney said.
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Lab has three focuses


The center will serve three main purposes, according to UW-Madison professor Raj Veeramani, director of the E-Business Consortium.

First, the RFID Workgroup will share information between more than 40 companies on new ideas and best practices for RFID.

Second, the lab will give UW students from various disciplines an opportunity to use the technology hands-on. "We feel that the only way you can really learn is by doing it by yourself," Veeramani said of the educational component.

Finally, a convergence of the private sector workgroup and the academics is expected to foster greater RFID development.

"Simply stated, the Wisconsin Idea is that the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state and beyond," stated Paul Peercy, dean of the College of Engineering, referring to the availability of the lab and its knowledge beyond the Engineering Centers Building of the UW-Madison campus.

Sweeney pointed out the key mistakes enterprises have tended to make in RFID: merely shoehorning it into existing systems and trying to get it working that way instead of taking a more holistic approach that addresses existing equipment, issues of interference, and overall physics of radio signals within their facilities.

He likened the prevailing implementations of RFID to the Verizon Wireless ad campaign in which a technician walks around the country to different spots to check the reception. While it's an attractive and humorous approach for a cell-phone company, it's precisely the wrong approach for an enterprise setting up RFID, he said. "Hopefully, we won't see the Verizon guy ever again," Sweeney joked.

Rules for successful RFID implementation


Instead, Sweeney laid out three key rules for successful RFID implementation.

First, RFID has to be firmly grounded in physics, taking into account what in an enterprise could cause interference.

Second, managers have to properly plan out the infrastructure, getting the hardware and software right within the physical constraints before going to deployment.

Finally, interdependencies must be taken into account; while RFID is subject to interference from other sources, it can interfere with other systems more than other systems interfere with it, according to Sweeney.

Lab set up as a factory


Attendees of the Friday lab unveiling were shown around facilities functioning as a factory with a three-stage RFID deployment. The complexity of the system helped to illustrate for everyone just how complicated RFID is overall, and how much work it takes to implement a solution.

First came the anechoic chamber, a room in which all electromagnetic interference can be cut off, allowing tags to function in a perfectly controlled environment. Interference can be introduced into the chamber to mimic the real world and to allow researchers to target changes and test for the effects of interference.

Next came a conveyor belt shipping facility, with boxes of everyday products like cereal or pasta moving along a conveyor belt made of plastic to minimize noise. At various stages along the process, boxes are identified by scanners and then given the appropriate shipping labels, with readings taken at each step of the process to ensure that the right box has been given the right tag, the right data and the correct shipping label.

That quality control element is critical to ensure efficiencies that RFID promises, noted Mike Soloway, a labeling systems engineer for Illinois-based Weber Marking Systems. Soloway pointed out that a bad tag might not just be a dud; it could also have another item's data or even garbled data that acts as a monkey wrench for the whole system. While the precautions necessary to guard against such errors can slow down the system, on a very large scale things are faster than if they were done the old-fashioned way.

Finally, attendees were shown a dock station, where a cart with a few RFID-equipped products was demonstrated being scanned. Lab worker and UW student Brad Geiger discussed how RFID use at such ports will take on a greater role in the near future, due in part to federal and state security regulations requiring manufacturing and shipping companies to keep complete records of where packages have been.

"That's a very cumbersome process and a huge burden for these companies, and one of the most promising technologies that's being investigated is RFID," Geiger said.

Andy Parkinson, an RFID marketer for New Jersey-based Sun Chemical, said the lab opening helped to better educate attendees on both the strengths and the limitations of the technology.

"In terms of good clear, concise information about the capabilities of RFID, a lot of companies talk it up as a universal panacea to everybody's problems in business, in logistics and shipping and storage," Parkinson said. The RFID lab personal are "very good at clearing up some of the impressions people have gotten, some of the misinformation about how readers and antennas work, and how vital it is to have the right software, the right antennas, and do the planning first," he added.

• Read more about RFID in previous WTN stories:
UW-Madison RFID technology lab debuts Friday
Tommy Thompson to get RFID implant
The key to finding RFID's ROI
UW-Madison workgroup helps state companies tap the power of RFID

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN based in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.


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