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Laying the foundation for RFID

Advantages, disadvantages and implementation advice offered

Waukesha, Wis. – Whenever a new piece of technology comes out on the open market, it seldom begins its life as an instant success. More frequently, it is seen as an expensive toy or impractical contraption that is waiting for early adopters, who are often making a risky gamble. To become successful, it must be studied by those experienced in the field, tested in real-world conditions and purchased enough so early adopters become the majority.

All of these steps came into being for RFID, or radio frequency identification technology, at Thursday’s Wisconsin RFID Conference, sponsored by the UW E-Business Institute and eInnovate. Representatives from businesses all over Wisconsin converged on the Country Inn Conference Center, attending sessions to identify the potential applications of RFID technology and analyze the developing standards and costs of the system.

“We feel RFID has significant impact for all Wisconsin industries, and it is at the first step of evolution,” said Raj Veeramani, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering and director of the E-Business Institute. “There are a lot of unknowns however, and that’s what this workshop is about.”

RFID technology is essentially the next step of evolution from bar codes and consists of a “smart tag,” which can be implanted in a wide range of products and can record movement and destination with a scanner. Unlike bar codes, the chips can carry thousands of facts about a product and have numerous variations available in frequency, read distance and protocols.
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The tags can also be customized to bear more information: either passively, powered by a reader’s scan and with little information written on them, or actively, with an independent power source and more storage space at greater cost.

An additional improvement on RFID tags from bar codes is that line of sight is no longer required to identify whether or not a product is where it should be. The readers, which scan each tag, allow the product to be processed in bulk and through materials such as wood and plastic. This capacity keeps all movement-related information in a database where it can be accessed instantaneously.

“You move a case through [the scanner] and all of a sudden that data is there,” said Mike Burnham, president of the software development company Panatrack, which specializes in data collection. “There’s no need for checking or digging into boxes – it just happens.”

However, while RFID has a great deal of advantages, including anti-theft software and reduced item-sorting labor, adopting the system is another matter. Converting a system to work with RFID is a time-consuming and costly process, and there are often so many products available for tagging that the trick is to find out what data are important. Additionally, fine-tuning is required to deal with issues such as the chips’ inability to be read through metal; chips in a metallic environment need to be stronger, and are thus more expensive.

“One variable you’re not expecting will invariably show up,” said Ken Tinnell, practice leader of RFID system development at Rockwell Automation.

The conference continued by discussing how to form a business case that worked with the technology, stressing that the market is now ripe for entry and has the potential to be very profitable.

Many factors lie behind RFID’s success, not the least of which is heavy hitters like Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense mandating its use with suppliers to track product shipments.

“The industry is starting to look like the Internet circa ’99,” said Jack Kahler of Avocus Group of the surge of interest in RFID. “I think the Internet was training us for this … there are a lot of investors floating around, pouring a lot of money into it.”

Panelists emphasized that a company seeking to use RFID technology should keep its attention on the problems to be fixed, as RFID is so adaptable it can be used for any number of things. This adaptability means, however, that there is no standard for applying it and many mixed messages exist in reference to its application. The course of action recommended by the panelists was to look at what RFID can do for existing problems rather than on just using RFID, as this narrowed focus will reduce implementation issues.

“What we’re trying to get at is what areas we’re trying to focus on, so that we’re not getting a shotgun wedding of zero profit,” Kahler said.

Investments in RFID are never constant either, as there is frequently more behind the basic material and setup costs. When setting up a system, end costs can be three to five times the original cost of hardware and software, or even higher if the existing framework does not meet the requirements for the system. Panelists said the best advice they can give to anyone looking to incorporate RFID would be to always consider investments in terms of all stages, have funds prepared to handle any internal and external problems and study successful uses of the technology to see what was done.

“There’s a lot of learning in the process,” said Scott Springer of Virchow, Krause and Company. “You have to put up shields … the uncounted part can be very critical.”

Despite the inherent difficulties in establishing it, audience members and speakers alike praised the adaptability of RFID and pledged their support to help bring it to be a staple of industry.

“We need to work together to support the technology,” said Barbara Eaves, executive director of eInnovate. “We understand the importance of technology in Wisconsin, and that it’s going to reach critical mass.”

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Les Chappell is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at les@wistechnology.com.

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