A Day In The Life Of An RFID Student
I remember when Greg Dixon, CTO of ScanSource, Inc., first told me he was creating an RFID training program. I was at one of the distributor’s Solution City events in 2004. Dixon told me his idea was to develop a course that would provide attendees with the opportunity to walk away with complete or nearly complete RFID certifications for several vendors. No more traveling to numerous locations to be certified on a single vendor’s products and no more paying for each of those individual training sessions. His course, called RFID Edge, would last 4½ days and cost $2,500, which was less than some of the existing single-vendor courses. I’ll admit that at the time, I was skeptical. This seemed like a lofty goal, even for ScanSource. But Dixon and his staff worked for months and eventually made the program a reality. They sectioned off a portion of their 240,000-square-foot warehouse in Memphis, TN and built a classroom/lab stocked with RFID printers, tags, readers, handhelds, and middleware from many of the major players in this technology. They also built a special conveyor system and an RFID portal outside of the lab in the warehouse where students could test the skills they learned in class.
The first RFID Edge class was in August 2005. Monthly classes have continued since then, and most of the classes have been full with nine students. After attending a day of the April 2006 class, I saw why this training is in such demand.
More Than RFID 101
The first thing I noticed when Dixon reviewed with me what I had missed the previous two days was the amount of detail that has gone into developing and keeping this class up to date. Each student receives a 4-inch deep three-ring binder containing all of the presentations and necessary information covered in the class. Students refer back to this binder throughout the hands-on exercises conducted in the lab. Because standards and mandates are constantly changing and evolving, the content of the students’ three-ring binders is updated for each class.
Brad Wikholm and Randy Smith, two of ScanSource’s RF solutions engineers, conduct most of the training. They expose students to everything from RFID physics to the most recent developments in the Gen 2 spec and Wal-Mart mandate (80% of the training is UHF [ultra high frequency]-related). Students also learn skills such as how to create SSCC (serial shipping container code) and SGTIN (serialized global trade item number) codes and how to determine the optimal tag placement on a case or pallet. In fact, the day I was there, the students were being tested on much of the information they had learned thus far. But this was a very hands-on test, like most of the training.
Test Your Wal-Mart Mandate Skills
The test consisted of a scenario involving a fictitious food distributor called Fidedge Foods, which has to meet Wal-Mart’s mandate. Throughout the RFID Edge program, the class is broken into three teams, and for this project, each team was competing for the Fidedge Foods RFID business. Each team had to determine the best location for the tag on a box containing multiple gallon bottles of water, a box containing multiple small bags of Fritos, and four boxes of Capri Sun juice bags shrink-wrapped together. This was a challenging part of the test, especially for the water and the juice bags since they contain liquids and foil packaging (on the juice bags). Each group had a set of readers connected to a laptop running an RFID software application that would tell the students when a successful read was achieved. The students documented each of their attempts, adjusting the distance of the readers and the tag placement each time.
Once they had two options for tag placement on each item, the teams had to test each package on a conveyor moving 600 feet per minute (the Wal-Mart mandate specification). The conveyor was already equipped with RFID readers, and each team had to make sure its boxes each received at least 20 good reads while traveling on the conveyor belt. Later, the teams had to create different pallet configurations with these same items, choose a location for a pallet RFID tag, and again get statistically significant read rates as the pallet is pushed through a portal. After each testing phase, the groups presented their findings to Dixon, Smith, and Wikholm, who acted as the Fidedge executives. I thought this role-playing portion of the program was important because it made the students think about how they would need to convince a client to choose them for an RFID project. The students were peppered with questions (from the Fidedge executives) during their presentations and pressed to give reasons for every action they had taken during the testing process. Would the tag have to cover a portion of the customer’s logo on the packaging? Would the customer still be able to use its wireless phones around the RFID system? Would a different kind of label design software be needed to create the tags used in the test?
In my opinion, there’s nothing easy about this class. Sure, you may know some of the RFID basic info, but that is a small portion of the program. The rest is in-depth and fast-paced. Because of that, ScanSource screens any VAR that applies for the course. Attendees should have some technical background and cannot sell the majority of their products through the Internet. In the April class, the backgrounds of the students were diverse, ranging from a retired Denver policeman to a 20-something-year-old technician from Indiana — both of whom were AIDC VARs. A few of the attendees had taken some vendor RFID training courses, but the majority were new to RFID, and none had any Wal-Mart-related RFID projects in the works.
Stressing The Total RFID Solution
During the day I was there, you could tell all of the students had absorbed a lot of valuable information. It was especially evident when they had to apply what they had learned to solve the Fidedge Foods project. Dixon and his crew are supportive of all the teams and balance the sometimes-heady topics with just the right amount of levity. This formula works, judging by the positive remarks each of the attendees shared with me regarding the course. A few noted that they felt the biggest advantage of the course was its comprehensive and neutral nature. In other words, it wasn’t focused on one vendor’s product; it stressed the entire RFID solution. From what I saw, I agree that was one of the biggest advantages, but there was a fringe benefit, too.
The Wednesday night of every RFID Edge program, ScanSource takes all of the students to dinner. The location is the same each month — a tiny restaurant tucked away in an alley about a block from Beale Street in downtown Memphis. The house specialty: ribs. I was lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, and while I may not be able to compare the RFID Edge program’s merits to other RFID training programs, I can tell you this with certainty — you may forget some of the lessons learned in class, but you’ll never forget those succulent ribs.