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RFID Implementation: Moving Forward through the Four Phases

Written By: Dylan Persaud
Published On: September 17 2007

In part three of this series, phase one of a radio frequency identification (RFID) implementation was outlined and discussed in detail (please see Radio Frequency Identification Implementation: The First Steps. For more background on RFID, please see previous parts of this series: Are You Tuned into Radio Frequency Identification? and A How-to Guide for a Radio Frequency Identification Site Survey.

Phase Two: Test and Validation

Since RFID is uncharted territory for many organizations, deployment represents a long journey. Best practices indicate that organizations involve an experienced person who understands existing operations, systems, and processes. As a provisionary measure, someone with additional expertise in interpreting data, which provides value to the supply chain part of the business, should be also engaged. Usually a business analyst that can configure, interpret, and modify the system for ongoing and post-implementation support becomes necessary.

Organizations may not realize the intricacies of RFID technology and the need for a commitment to the project. Integration partners have recognized this trend and have adapted their business models toward a service integration model. Value-added resellers (VARs) and implementers have addressed this lack of expertise, and they are heavily leveraged as professional services organizations. The partner fills the business analysis expertise gap in order to evaluate business practices and the ability to create workflows, and to understand the current information infrastructure. Best practices dictate that Project Management Institute (PMI) methodology be followed: proper RFID expertise should be employed, workflows should be created, and realistic performance targets, milestones, and responsibilities should be followed.

Following are the steps in phase two of an RFID implementation:

  • Step 1. System integration
    Within this step, it is important to understand how RFID will integrate to your existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) application or warehouse management system (WMS). Not understanding the integration to external systems of extra data that has been collected can cause confusion. The sticking points may include the complexity of the data, how it is interpreted, its financial impact, or the comprehension of how to exchange meaningful information with trading partners. Another layer of complexity will be added to your system administration overhead in terms of data management, hardware tracking, use of a middleware RFID software, and the infrastructure behind the new layer (that is, new servers, adding the name to the domain, etc.).

    The results of testing and evaluation will allow the organization to preview the extent of capabilities that can be achieved. Look for solutions that integrate hardware and software to your WMS or ERP application. When done properly, RFID systems minimize radio frequency (RF) coverage and report precise readings in finite areas. Users can select systems that are multi-protocol-capable and that have an open data structure as an extensible markup language (XML) integration for data swap, as well as a common database. It is very useful if the RFID application is written in the same language as the ERP application and WMS.

  • Step 2. Interfaces
    A key element of any implementation is its integration to the periphery systems. The person guiding you through the integration will contemplate and monitor the development of the interfaces among the ERP, WMS, transportation management software (TMS), electronic data interchange (EDI), and shipping systems. The integration will require a new interface that should be tested with all other systems that are affected (listed above). While monitoring the creation and definition of the interfaces, organizations should examine the following:

    • Various platforms. That is, operating systems and applications where the data is actually used.

    • The databases used among all systems. Are they compatible and can they easily connect without additional programming?

    • Connectivity of the databases. Is there a tool to link them, such as an open database connectivity (ODBC) or a socket connection?

    • Interface definition and mappings of the interfaces among the systems.

    • The function of the workflows between systems, which have to be seamless. Can your new RFID system handle this, and how will this fit in?

    • The data exchanged among systems. Is it in the same language?

    • Who controls the data.

    • Where the data is stored.

    • Who the consumers of the data are, and whether it is acted upon.

    • Whether the data is mined from a business intelligence (BI) system.


    Best practices suggest that once integration of the application is defined, implemented, and tested within the test environment, an end-to-end test should be completed. The end-to-end test should include the correct placement of the tag on the item, a reader response, collection of the data to the RFID system, and validation of that data. The organization should validate the exchanged data that is to be passed to other systems through integration, the receipt of the data to the auxiliary system, and exchange with the trading partners.

  • Step 3. Workflows
    Complete workflows of entire business processes should be documented so that there is a road map to plan the installation. If these processes do not exist, be sure to allot additional time to the project plan to complete the process reengineering that is required. These questions, if answered before starting, will provide a much smoother integration. The workflows among these systems should follow the entire product cycle, from inception to the consumption of the data or product. The interfaces should allow seamless integration among all systems. The dataflow should follow all the processes, and the corresponding data should also agree with each phase. Once completed, the pilot implementation is the next phase of the four-phase approach.

Phase Three: Pilot Implementation

Best practices indicate that the objective of the pilot program is to develop predictability and scalability to accommodate as many scenarios as possible that affect the business on a day-to-day basis. In phase three, achievement of precision, placement, output, and performance will need to be verified and recorded. The recording of the findings will provide a useful troubleshooting and training tool, and can act as a knowledge transfer document for personnel. At this point, proper label placement should have been established, and reader interaction and flow of data among systems should have been dealt with in the previous phases.

The pilot implementation is actually a test of the complete system in the full working environment where the production system will exist. The difference is that the operation and use of the system will be scaled back to manageable portions. Load testing should expose any further flaws in business processes and anomalies within the system, and should allow the full operational scale that is required to run the business on a daily basis.

Best practices suggest completing a checklist of tasks during the pilot phase of the project. If a “yes” is checked for one item, then proceed to the next item. If the answer to an item is “no,” then re-perform that task before advancing to the next one.

Pilot Implementation Checklist Yes No
1. Set up equipment in other facilities or divisions to improve processes and test infrastructure.    
2. Verify the ability to capture information and to transfer data to and from other systems.    
3. Educate employees on the technology and use of RFID, as this will affect how they work if tag placement is manual.    
4. Make sure all employees that will use the system are properly trained in the operation they require.    
5. Partner with suppliers to verify system compatibility. Work with partners to iron out any incompatibilities, label types, protocol, etc.    
6. Subject the system to load testing, and use a quantity as per usual operations. Introduce incremental amounts of data, product, and collection to the system.    
7. Measure results to test the viability of tag data on a larger scale (that is, on the entire ERP platform and throughout the business process).    
8. Work with partners to eliminate errors.    
9. Integrate the data between the ERP application and WMS with other systems. This includes testing data flow and validating the data.    
10. Decide whether to use an automated process for label application, or a manual process. Also, devise a method to complete the operation of tag placement and how that data can be gathered and processed.    
11. Devise a cutover plan. Which systems are affected? How many systems? When and at what locations?    
12. Have a contingency plan in place in case of failure. Have work-arounds prepared to solve data and technology issues, and create alerts to employees if a part of the system fails.    

Table 1. Pilot implementation checklist.

If the automation process is causing delays in production, consider a manual operation. If time is running short, the organization should consider making the application of smart labels a post-production step rather than incorporating it into the manufacturing process. Deconsolidation and re-palletizing might be a short-term solution (slap and ship). This will allow a quicker deployment time if necessary.

Many slap and ship solutions contain the basic necessities to satisfy an RFID mandate (such as offering the option of tags to be applied), but they do not require the heavy investment that a full implementation does. The concept is this: the organization can apply the tags and verify the information without needing to buy extra features it does not require. Many WMS companies offer a slap and ship package that is usually added just before product leaves the warehouse. These kits usually include readers, tags, and encoders, and sometimes a light version of middleware to manage the data and hardware. For the supplier issuing the mandate, this usually satisfies the information requirement.

Conclusion

Best practices recommend a phased approach to an RFID implementation. Such an approach will allow for manageable tasks that can be controlled and rectified if necessary. Use of a vendor, a handful of product items, information flow between suppliers, and business procedures should all be validated. When a problem occurs, its magnitude and whether the number of resolutions is manageable will determine how easy it is to troubleshoot. When the organization completes the RFID transactions, a combination of system and manual verification should occur to validate that everything is correct. Data that is manually interpreted for validity (checking if product data is correct) and tracked throughout all the systems affected (interface validity) confirms that the end-to-end test is validated.

Once the end-to-end test is verified, the organization should add suppliers and products gradually so that should an issue arise, it will be easier to manage. In other words, troubleshooting will be more manageable in portions of data; application corrections can be made more easily (if necessary) and the resources can be allocated to handle the crisis. The concept of adding the suppliers and products one by one allows the users to see if a problem exists with a particular product or supplier. If a supplier has made an error, the steps to correct the error should be minimal, as the other customers and products have already been validated. Resolving the problem involves dealing with the issue internally as well as informing the trading partner in question if the problem exists on its side as well. Collaboration will allow a quicker resolution to the problem. Once all products are live, all suppliers are satisfied with the state of integration, and data integrity is tested, then it is safe to progress to the fourth step of the implementation process.

Stay tuned for the final phase and cutover of an RFID implementation, covered in the next part of the series 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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