Don't Wait Any Longer To Sell RFID
Despite past disappointment, RFID (radio frequency identification) has made major progress over the past year and a half, and you need to take a second look.
When you follow technology, it's easy to get caught up in the hype about the latest and greatest solutions, which is exactly what happened a few years ago with RFID. In fact, it seemed as if every other technology headline was related to RFID (and Wal-Mart or the DoD, of course). But, when real-world RFID implementation results revealed dismal 70% tag read rates, RFID quickly lost its appeal, and many end users and VARs turned their attention elsewhere.
The reality is, however, that RFID has made great strides in the past year and a half. Four industry experts share what's new and important with this technology and offer advice about what you need to know to start selling RFID solutions.
RFID Interoperability, Compatibility Issues Greatly Improved
One of the noticeable drawbacks with RFID has been the limited media and printer choices. Basically, if you chose one vendor's printer, you were locked in to that same vendor's media partner. "Nowadays, there are literally hundreds of different tag designs available for all kinds of solutions," says Tony Sabetti, VP of RF solutions at Sirit Inc. "These are good signs that RFID printer and label manufacturers have responded with better, more consistent products."
Doug Hall, VP of marketing at Datamax agrees with this assessment and adds, "Previously, no one knew how to put RFID antennas above or below the area where the printing occurred. A common workaround entailed putting the antenna on the outside of the label, but that proved to be unreliable. Nowadays, printer vendors have figured out how to pull RFID labels through their printers using heated rollers and affixing the antenna just before the label is printed, which dramatically improves read accuracy."
So, just how much has RFID reader accuracy improved? "We're now seeing read rates in the 98% to 99% range," says Joe Sandoval, director of Americas distribution sales at Printronix. "The industry is still striving for 99.9% read accuracy, but the point is major improvements have been made in a short time."
One other issue that's plagued RFID deployments a couple of years ago was the 'silent' tag, a situation that occurs when an RFID printer confirms that a tag is 'good' but in production the tag doesn't work. "When a tag is initially read by an RFID printer, the tag and reader are only 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch apart, which is known as a near-field read," says Hall. "In the production area, the tag and reader are typically 1 foot to 10 feet apart, known as the far field. RFID vendors have discovered over the past couple of years that radio waves behave very differently in the near field versus the far field, and as a result, some printer vendors now have additional tag verification steps built into their printers to ensure a tag is good before it's used in production."
One additional significant improvement with RFID is its global adoption. According to Stephen Hull, RFID product manager at SATO America, "Most RFID readers used to only be certified to operate in the U.S.-approved 902 to 928 MHz spectrum or an international spectrum such as 865 to 868 MHz [i.e. Europe]. Since then, Intel released a chipset that allows a reader to service the whole band. This means that manufacturers can now create global readers, which lowers the cost." It also makes it easier for VARs to sell solutions to American-based companies with international facilities.
What RFID Hang-Ups Remain?
Even though RFID has come a long way in a short time, there are a couple of important points you need to know before selling it. "First, RFID does not lend itself to be a plug and play type of technology," says Sabetti. "This is good news for VARs, however, because they are the ones that end users are turning to for advice."
Another area where VARs need to be careful with RFID is managing customers' expectations. This relates to a problem that has plagued this technology from the beginning: a lack of understanding of what it can and can't do. "It's unrealistic for a customer to think that it just needs to tag its inventory and everything will be automated going forward," says Hull. "Passive RFID isn't like GPS technology, which can constantly locate a tagged item. Hypothetically, if a customer installed enough readers, it could create an automated inventory environment, but when you consider the cost, it's just not practical. This is where a VAR can help a customer understand the specific business processes the customer wants to improve, and implement RFID to help with that process."
VARs should also be prepared to respond to the concerns that some people have about the safety of using RFID as well as concerns about the loss of privacy. By taking the time to educate customers about RFID safety and security, VARs can usually overcome the concerns.
RFID, Asset Tracking Go Hand In Hand
One area where RFID is excelling and providing end users with returns on their investments is in closed-loop environments. "Asset tracking holds great promise in various markets such as healthcare, aerospace, military, transportation/logistics, and manufacturing," says Sabetti. The other experts I spoke with agree with this and add agriculture and horticulture as viable markets for asset tracking solutions. "VARs need to understand their customers' businesses and know what happens when a prospect doesn't track its assets, and be able to quantify the loss in time and dollars," says Sandoval. "For example, in manufacturing, some companies have problems with tools disappearing from the work area. By tagging tools and installing RFID readers at key locations such as in the tool crib and near exit doors, manufacturers can greatly reduce this problem."
So, even if your customers don't sell to Wal-Mart, it doesn't mean they don't have a need for RFID. It may be true that no one is approaching you about implementing RFID, but that doesn't mean you can't be proactive and show your customer how RFID could help them improve their asset tracking. It's only a matter of time before RFID's impact will be felt in every vertical market.