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At Last-A Complete (and Successful) RFID Implementation

Written By: Dylan Persaud
Published On: September 21 2007

A successful radio frequency identification (RFID) implementation requires an organization to execute and follow through a series of phases. To learn more about the initial phases of an RFID project, please see Are You Tuned into Radio Frequency Identification?, A How-to Guide for a Radio Frequency Identification Site Survey, Radio Frequency Identification Implementation: The First Steps, and RFID Implementation: Moving Forward through the Four Phases.

Phase Four: Implementation

The home stretch is now in sight. The considerations of the initial planning stages have allowed for a complete solution. While phase three of an RFID implementation entails the creation of a scaled-back version of the production environment (complete with the correct data and equipment), phase four involves the final rollout. A proper rollout plan should be devised to ensure a successful implementation, and it should include the following: a contingency rollout plan; scheduling of hardware, software, and IT resources; having the vendor standing by; and work-arounds to address problems that may crop up.

Following are the steps that should provide a smooth wrap-up to the RFID implementation project: validation, data capture, network and device management, and cutover.

Validation

Validation requires correlation. By having data validation built into the printing equipment, the organization can correlate maximum bar code reads. Without any manual intervention, the system will be able to check if the correct data is read from the tag and to compare that data to the corresponding database of electronic product code (EPC) information. If a discrepancy occurs, the system will automatically back up and cancel the label by voiding the erroneous tag. The system will then print a replacement tag—a task executed by the encoder (printer).

Data Capture

Data capture is essential for supply chain visibility. The ability to track data, product location, in-transit product, and on-order goods, as well as the ability to see unit quantities in each of these categories is very valuable. These capabilities can translate into accurate financial information, educated supply and demand predictions, and efficient planning to drive toward a lean inventory strategy. The increased amount of real-time data can provide a more complete customer experience, as users will have the correct information readily available to accommodate a customer's request.

Data capture through RFID will allow for near instantaneous visibility of supply chain activities, facilitate better demand planning and sales projections, and assist with purchasing decisions. Once EPC data is integrated to the database, it can provide real-time information as well as location and batch information that can identify and locate specific products at any point in the supply chain. A best practices approach suggests using both bar code and RFID technologies, as these are complementary. While bar codes offer a means of identification, 2-D optical recognition RFID offers specific information on the contents of a package through radio waves.

Following is the anatomy of an EPC product, taken from http://www.EPCGLOBALna.org:

Header code: This is the first component (3 digits) of the EPC that tells the reader or interrogator how to parse the bits (decode the remainder) of the EPC number.

EPC manager number: This is the second component of the EPC which describes what company or organization has authority over a group of products or items in the supply chain (much like the company prefix does in the GS1 system). It is important to note that only users are assigned EPC manager numbers.

Object class: This is the third component of the EPC which describes a category of items in the supply chain (much like an item reference or a stock-keeping unit [SKU] does in the GS1 System).

Serial number: This is the fourth component of the EPC that is critical to the reading and numeration of tags. It is up to individual companies to choose how they assign serial numbers (that is, individual instances of the object class that precedes it).

Once an EPC manager number has been assigned, EPCglobal US will ensure that it is registered within the Object Naming Service (ONS). This will ensure that the product data is accessible to trading partners via the EPCglobal network.

Network and Device Management

Middleware software serves two main purposes: 1) management of hardware devices and data, and 2) integration to other systems. Other functions of middleware software include collecting, processing, and aiding in data interpretation. Middleware software contains guidelines that are broken down into base components so that data can be dissected. Graphical dashboards are common in this type of software, as they identify each part of the code and then consolidate those parts. The information uses the ONS to communicate to external trading partners; it also feeds the other systems with the collected RFID data.

The physical hardware becomes part of the network infrastructure, and it must follow the same maintenance and support policies as the existing network. A best practices approach suggests defining how data will be managed on the network, and defining the devices for the RFID implementation (usually Information Technology Infrastructure Library [ITIL] methodology is used here). A middleware solution that is part of the network infrastructure is a worthwhile option because it will aid in the interpretation of data, and will monitor hardware in case a failure occurs that can impact operations. If failures do occur, alerts can be sent to the correct person to solve the problem.

If a middleware is selected, the organization should have the internal resources to interpret the data, to understand the impact the data has on the supply chain, and to understand the advantages of this new visibility. The internal resource may be a more cost-intensive strategy in this case. If internal resources are not available, outsourcing this operation is an option. Many RFID integrators may offer analysis and interpretation of the data, and they may even host the middleware solutions (please see Tightening the Chain—Supply Chain Cost-cutting Strategies); this is the other solution, and it is generally a more expensive one for organizations. Usually, the business analyst can interpret and correct the data if necessary. A best practices approach recommends that predefined procedures be in place for troubleshooting purposes. The IT person should have the administrative rights to select, correct, and reissue the data, as well as process or resend this data to the business partner in case there are any problems with it.

Cutover

A common best practice that mitigates risk is to run each system in parallel. The system that is currently in place for tracking is most likely a bar coding system; this system should be functioning properly so that business operations are not interrupted. Then, with the addition of the RFID system to the network, the organization should introduce the new functionality for vendors and items in phases. Once everything has “gone live,” the organization should continue to monitor the new component of the system, with the incremental addition of tasks, items, and procedures to the network system. This will make it easier to pinpoint where an error exists should one occur, and to troubleshoot.

Best practices recommended by Project Management Institute (PMI) methodology suggest a cutover plan should be devised. The most common points of breakdown include an organization's lack of understanding of business issues and how IT can solve those issues. Oftentimes, the IT department and the business have different viewpoints of the same issue, and rarely do the two come together to resolve the problem.

A common pitfall for companies is that the test environments they constructed are not the same as their actual production environments. Another is that sometimes the versions of software used in the test environment are different than the versions used in production, and vice versa, which makes solving problems more difficult. It causes confusion, as the systems will not react the same way they did when they were tested. If a problem occurs, it becomes difficult to determine the cause and to know what needs to be addressed in order to correct the problem. When deciding how to solve problems, the organization should consider the solution that follows sound accounting principles and IT practices, and one that satisfies the operational component of the issue.

A best practices plan should encompass the following:

  1. Train employees on the new system, with some learning troubleshooting techniques as well.

  2. Run systems in parallel to mitigate risk.

  3. Ensure that the scaled-back pilot implementation run was truly representative of the actual production environment, complete with supplier and item master information within the production environment.

  4. Decide if the organization is to “go-live” enterprise-wide or by department.

  5. Have the correct resources on site for hardware and software support, or at least ensure they are readily available by phone or by e-mail.

  6. Consider the impact on the other systems. Are there interfaces that need to be shut down and brought back up? If so, which users will this affect?

  7. Always back up your current system before “going live,” including the application and the database.

  8. Populate the database with correct information both in terms of items and suppliers.

  9. Enable trading partners, and have them on standby should any unforeseen problems occur.

  10. Formulate and document troubleshooting procedures beforehand so that fixes are quick and efficient while preserving data integrity.

These steps form the foundation of a cutover plan. Since this is the final step of the implementation, flipping the switch to complete integration should follow.

Conclusion

This guide provides a summary of how to implement an RFID system and includes a breakdown of the specific steps required to do so. A basic overview of the technology, preparatory tasks, and four essential phases have been laid out as the fundamentals of implementing RFID in an organization.

To start, the organizational fit for RFID is examined and the technology is defined. Before actual implementation, the preparatory steps of conducting a site survey and business partner selection should be executed.

Building a development environment and testing operational scenarios comes next (phase one), which includes verifying three vital areas for a successful implementation: label placement, read rates, and hardware locations.

Most of the initial testing is performed in phase two, as what is learned here can be applied to the next steps of the implementation. System integrations, interfaces, and workflows are examined during this phase.

In phase three—the pilot phase—tasks are explained in detail, a checklist is provided to prepare for the final phase, and possible work-arounds for common RFID issues are suggested.

Phase four—the final phase—includes validation, data testing, and network and device management, and it examines the formulation of the cutover plan.

This guide can be used as a tool to maximize an organization's potential for a successful RFID project.

Glossary

Active tags: These tags have an on-board transmitter (usually powered by a battery) that constantly emits a signal, with a read range of 100 ft (30 m) or more. EPC classes 3 and 4. They have their own power source and are costly.

AEN: Ambient electromagnetic noise; refers to the outside interference that can impact radio frequencies within the RFID system. AEN is radio and microwave interference created by existing electrical and other radio equipment.

Auto-ID, AIDC: Automatic identification; usually automatic information data capture done by some type of electronic equipment, such as a scanner, a biometric pad, a camera, etc.

Backscatter: Backscatter refers to electromagnetic waves that are reflected off and propagated away from an object.

BI system: Business intelligence system; usually contains all corporate information.

Code hopping: Refers to the ability of a device to switch from one frequency to another automatically and to use open channels within a preset range of operation.

EAN: European article number; European version of a bar code. An 8- or 13-digit code originally used by companies outside North America to uniquely identify themselves and their products worldwide.

EPC: Electronic product code; a code that identifies the manufacturer or product category of an individual item. This code also identifies the unique item number of the product.

EPCglobal: EPCglobal is a joint venture of the EAN International and Uniform Product Council (UCC), representing 100 member organizations worldwide. EPCglobal is backed by the UCC and EAN International, the two main bodies that oversee bar code standards.

Encoder: A reader and an antenna built into a smart label printer to write RFID information to tags.

FFCA: Full Faraday cycle analysis; a method of gathering time-dependent frequency analysis data. Can also be referred to as a site survey for RFID.

Frequency bands:

Band Frequency Read Range Notes
low frequency (LF) 100–500 kHZ up to 20 in (50.8 cm) Access control, animal identification, and vehicle key locks.
high frequency (HF) 13.56 kHZ up to 3 ft (1 m) Access control, smart cards, item-level tagging libraries, and electronic article surveillance.
ultra high frequency (UHF) 866–956 MHZ The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows over 20 ft (6 m) at 915 MHZ. Range at 866 MHZ is about 10 percent less than at 915 MHZ. Supply chain use, baggage handling, and toll collection. Wal-Mart accepts RFID tags in this range.
microwave 2.45 GHZ 3–10 ft (up to 3 m) Item tracking and toll collection.

GTIN: Global trade item number; a generic term used to describe the entire family of UCC and EAN data structures for trade items.

HF: High frequency; refers to radio waves in the 13.56 kHZ range.

Host system: A computer that runs software applications that interact with RFID and other devices, such as WMSs.

Interrogation zone: This is the physical area through which radio waves are propagated.

LF: Low frequency; refers to radio waves in the 100-500 kHZ range.

MH10 label: A label format; used widely in retail. This is one of the most popular label standards with the UCC128 bar code, used for identification purposes. Most major retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, etc. use this form of identification. This label format will become a complimentary technology to be used with RFID for maximum gains.

Middleware: Middleware is the interface needed between the interrogator and the existing company databases and information management software.

ONS: Object Naming Service; allows communication with and identification of external trading partners.

Passive tags: These are RFID tags activated by the electromagnetic waves of a reader. They do not have on-board transmitters. They have a read range of 10–25 ft (3–8 m).

PMI methodology: Project Management Institute methodology; a methodology for project control using a project management body of knowledge (PMBOK).

Quiet label: This is a label that cannot be read from a normal distance.

Reader: Also called an interrogator, a reader communicates with the RFID tag and passes information in digital format to the computer system.

RFID: Radio frequency identification.

RF: Radio frequency.

SA: Spectrum analysis; refers to a range of values of a quantity or of a set of related quantities. Measurements of radio waves and the frequency emitted.

Signal generator: A device that produces RF signals at preset frequencies, strengths, and durations. This will be hooked up to a ¼ wave dipole antenna via a coaxial cable; it will transmit the generated RF field.

Smart label: This is a label that contains an RFID tag. It is considered “smart” because it can store such information as a unique serial number, and it communicates with the reader.

Tag: The RFID tag is composed of a microchip and a flexible antenna encased in a plastic-coated inlay.

UCC: Uniform Code Council; based in the US, this is a membership organization that jointly manages the UCC.EAN system, including the Universal Product Code in the US and Canada.

UHF: Ultra high frequency; is one of the RFID frequency bands, usually 300 MHz to 3 GHz. Good bandwidth and good range. UHF waves do not penetrate materials well and require more power to be transmitted over a given range than lower frequencies do.

WORM tag: Write once, read many tag; uses a type of nonvolatile memory that can be written to only once, typically just before it is applied to a product or a container. Information is “read only.” EPC class 0+, 1, and UHF Gen 2.

WMS: Warehouse management system.

References

EPCGlobal. Glossary, Version 6.0, May 2005.
http://www.EPCGLOBALna.org

Kleist, Robert A., Chapman, Theodore A., Sakai, David A. 2004. Rfid Labeling: Smart Labeling Concepts & Applications for the Consumer Packaged Goods Supply Chain. Wisconsin: Banta Book Group.

Sweeney, Patrick J. 2005. RFID for Dummies. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Publishing.

This concludes our series on RFID implementation, Are You Tuned into Radio Frequency Identification?

For more information and to start your own custom solution comparison, please visit

TEC's Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Evaluation Center.

 
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