RFID Continues To Offer Supply Chain Options
Radio frequency identification (RFID) options are evolving, but VARs need to understand best RFID practices to prosper in the supply chain market.
Business Solutions, July 2009
Refined RFID Technology Helps Expand Market
Finding innovative ways to use RFID is driven by vendors. Dan Miller, RFID program manager for BlueStar, says both RFID readers and tags used are constantly evolving. “Readers are becoming smaller, more specialized, and a lot less expensive,” says Miller. “Tags are getting smaller, read ranges are increasing, and memory is increasing.” Rommel also expects more innovation. “A quick look at how rapidly RFID has evolved, even over the past few years, should provide a taste of what is to come,” he says. “I think we will see a continued focus on tag and reader optimization.” Expected improvements include better read performances on passive tags, embedded temperature and other sensors, antenna field shaping that allows for better read field coverage, and a continuing drop in costs.
Among the expectations Kelley has for the technology are advancements in two key areas. “We will see changes in the tag itself so it can record and carry data as it goes,” explains Kelley. “We will also have sensor information stored on the tag so you can monitor the tag’s history and see that it has been appropriately handled.” The second area where Kelley sees improvement is in the ease of deployment, often a stumbling block with RFID technology. For example, if today you have a distribution center with a dozen dock doors, each with a reader, and you want to know when a particular pallet or container goes through a dock door, it is easy to confuse the answer. Say the pallet is to be loaded through dock 5 but the forklift with that pallet drives by all the other doors and their RFID readers on the way to dock 5, and every reader scans that tag as well as the RFID reader at dock 5. Your tracking capabilities are muddled. Resolving deployment challenges such as that should help VARs focus on the best solution for each customer’s business problem rather than tricky reader issues.
Consider All Options For Supply Chain Solutions
Focusing on the technology rather than the supply chain problem a customer has is often a common mistake made by VARs working with RFID. “A VAR needs to look at the business problem its client has and determine how it can help move the customer’s business to the next level; that is the first challenge,” says Kelley. “If RFID can help, great, but it may not be the best answer.” While Kelley often sees this problem, he is encouraged that many end users and channel partners are getting better at considering a full spectrum of solutions. Miller agrees, adding that sometimes the blinders are on even within the RFID technology portion of a solution. “VARs automatically assume that ultra high frequency [UHF] Gen 2 is the solution to the problem when, in fact, there are many RFID technologies other than UHF,” he says.
Paufler also agrees that VARs have blinders on when dealing with potential RFID solutions. “There are many types of RFID that can be employed in a solution from passive to active, and then there are the four frequency spectrums: LF, HF, UHF, and microwave,” says Paufler. “After narrowing the scope, a detailed understanding of the installation should be pursued. Together these two studies allow a VAR to determine whether and what RFID approach should be taken.”
In Rommel’s opinion, the most common mistakes are made when a VAR assumes the simplicity of an RFID solution. “They don’t understand what they are getting into; they think RFID is just like bar codes or just like WLAN (wireless LAN), and while there are similarities, if you don’t know how to properly shape an antenna read field or select the optimal tag design, your customers are in for a world of hurt,” says Rommel. His advice? Invest in training or set up an in-house lab facility and play with the gear.
RFID education is the key as the technology keeps changing so quickly. “It can be difficult to keep tabs on all the new products, technologies, and solutions entering the RFID arena,” says Miller. Kelley agrees, saying, “You should find a technology vendor partner that has the breadth of offerings and depth of understanding, specifically in RFID, to support and educate you. Plus, in this economy, you’ll want a vendor with experience weathering slow growth periods.” In addition to watching vendors in the RFID space for guidance, look at leading VARs and study how those innovators are using RFID. The solutions they are providing their clients, you could be providing your customers in the near future.