22 Jun Conference studies applications and lessons of RFID
Waukesha, Wis. – Industry representatives discussed the pro and cons of radio frequency identification technology at Waukesha Area Technical College on Wednesday at the second annual Wisconsin RFID Conference. Sponsored by the UW E-Business Consortium, the conference looked at the steps for implementing RFID and predicted where the technology is headed.
RFID technology stores data about a product in an electronic tag. The tags are beginning to be used by retailers and manufacturers to track a product’s location as it moves through the supply chain.
According to Reik Read, a senior analyst with Baird Capital Partners, RFID has been rapidly developing as large organizations including Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense ,have issued mandates that their suppliers need to be RFID-compliant. These organizations have seen the value of RFID in improving the effeciency, safety and security of their supply chains. Reid said these mandates have helped push RFID forward in the industry, but have also created some problems. Companies that are rushing into RFID installation are confronted with high costs for hardware, software, consulting and installation services. RFID suppliers are updating the system faster than some customers can replace their existing equipment.
“You’re getting more investments for development, yet the understanding of RFID remains limited,” Reid said. “The hardware guys may not know what the software guys are doing as the industry is rapidly broadening.”
Read said despite these difficulties, RFID will likely thrive as the year continues, particularly among small businesses developing RFID solutions, as they are more flexible and risk adverse when developing these new technologies. Multiple support groups are studying RFID’s applications in transportation, healthcare, aerospace and automotive markets, while both the venture community and strategic investors are pouring money into firms developing the systems.
“Right now, I think we’re in kind of an in-between stage where established technology companies want to get into RFID, but are combated by competing internal agendas,” Read said. “I suspect for those who have been dragging their feet you’ll see a lot of mandates established.”
One company that has been successful with RFID is Pacific Cycle, a manufacturer of bicycles which uses RFID to track its products from the warehouse through distribution. Pacific Cycle’s information systems director Ed Matthews described how the company adopted RFID on Wal-Mart’s orders and then moved past the mandate to improve the quality of their business practices.
Matthews said while working with RFID the company learned it needs to be implemented across the supply chain, tagging each stage of the project and making sure they could keep an eye on the products before and after leaving the warehouse. Pacific Cycle plans to expand its scanning even further, tracking each bike from where they are manufactured in China.
Matthews said that gaining familiarity with RFID was the first key to installation, understanding it is not a new technology and there are several precedents to follow. “This is where we’re at – automatically getting information and sending [bikes] out the door,” Matthews said. “What we’re trying to gain now is understanding the data flow.”
Academic RFID was also represented at the conference with an advance look at the new University of Wisconsin-Madiosn RFID laboratory, which is scheduled to open in August. The lab grew out of discussions with the consortium’s RFID workgroup, a collection of companies who work together to handle technical problems with installing RFID.
“We wanted to create a trusted, non-commercial environment from where clients could discuss their challenges,” said Raj Veeramani, directort of the UW E-Business Consortium. “It was important to complement that discussion with a hands-on setting where we could test the technologies first hand.”
The lab will offer a portal/door station and a conveyor system station to test RFID in a warehouse-style setting, as well as an antenna design and performance analysis division. Veeramani said they have also created a special chamber to absorb radio frequency signals so the chips can be tested in a neutral setting.
Veeramani added that the lab will be used to study gaps in RFID research, looking at how product contents and the external environment affect signal performance. By having the station located at UW-Madison they will have the resources they need to get the information to companies who need it.
“What you rarely find are these types of stations, not only because they are expensive … but you have to have good technical knowledge to know what to do with the system,” Veeramani said.