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Radio Frequency Identification Implementation: The First Steps

Written By: Dylan Persaud
Published On: September 14 2007

As part of our ongoing series on radio frequency identification (RFID) implementation (please see Are You Tuned into Radio Frequency Identification? and A How-to Guide for a Radio Frequency Identification Site Survey), the introductory phase of implementing an RFID system will be explained, including the selection of proper RFID business partners and the setting up of the development environment and label placement.

Phase One: Getting Started

A best practices approach suggests that an effective RFID project involves four phases, from the point of concept to implementation. The checklist included here combined with this first of the four phases will allow the selection of a suitable business partner, and ensure the solid beginnings of a successful RFID implementation.

The Importance of Business Partners

Business partners are an intricate part of an RFID implementation. These vendors may provide the proper guidance and expertise that an organization itself may not possess. An emerging trend within the RFID industry is of several companies partnering together to provide one complete solution. One company provides the software; one company provides the hardware; and one company handles the integration. This type of collaboration may be an option if a single company cannot fulfill all of these requirements. A good example of this kind of association is the Hewlett-Packard (HP) and OATSystems partnership. HP provides the integration and hardware recommendation, and OATSystems provides the software. The IBM and ODIN Technologies partnership follows the same model.

When RFID first emerged, many vendors prematurely jumped into the marketplace with promises of expertise in RFID deployment. A similar phenomenon was seen with the advent of many dot-com companies. While trying to capitalize on the changing technology, the companies that entered the market early hardly had any business plans or business knowledge, no plans to execute a market, and they could not secure the capital to continue day-to-day business operations.

Therefore, organizations should be wary of partners that claim early adoption customers, as many of these vendors have not actually architected a solution, performed the testing, nor implemented the solution. Organizations should try to validate vendor claims by checking references for past installations, verifying that deliverables were met, and confirming with past customers that professionalism and the ultimate success of the implementation were agreed upon.

Business Partner Selection

Business partners are a great way to bridge any gaps in business and technology that may exist in an organization. Partners can offer additional expertise to map business processes, provide a value proposition for the organization, and aid in the implementation process.

The checklist in Table 1 describes functions and offers tips that should be noted when selecting a business partner. A best practices approach indicates that the following criteria are major components that make a business partner suitable. These requirements are actual deliverables that need to be validated by the organization when selecting a business partner. If a potential partner cannot substantiate that it meets the criteria listed, its expertise and quality of service may be of concern to the organization.

Based on the criteria listed below, a vendor's proof of its involvement in past projects that were successful will aid the organization's evaluation of it. If, at the end of the checklist, the number of yes's is greater than the number of no's, then that vendor may be considered safe to proceed with.

Vendor Selection Requirements Yes No
1. The vendor is technology- and solution-based, which can help an organization migrate and upgrade in a timely fashion through each level of the implementation process.    
2. The vendor is a leader in the field and a member of EPCglobal. EPCglobal works hand–in-hand with leading retailers, suppliers, and the US Department of Defense (DoD). By being a member of EPCglobal, the vendor can better understand an organization's business, resulting in an effective implementation. This will keep the organization's plan up to date.    
3. The vendor, if a member of EPCglobal, can influence technical development by integrating cost, performance, and needs into standards.    
4. The vendor can provide a fully integrated, cost-effective development environment.    
5. The vendor, whether of software or hardware, is technology- and market-driven as opposed to product-driven.    
6. The vendor has a proven record of successful auto-ID implementations.    
7. If the vendor is an early adopter of RFID technology, it has experience specifically related to Wal-Mart and DoD mandates.    
8. The vendor has been directly involved in numerous pilot programs, and it has completed at least a few of these projects successfully.    
9. RFID research and commitment to delivery are priorities for the vendor, and these priorities are supported by management and funded for development.    
10. The vendor provides an end-to-end solution, including hardware, software, and middleware.    
11. The vendor has a professional services group to assist with seamless integration that does not interrupt current business processes. Its team's collective expertise covers hardware, software, and middleware, and can handle the size of the organization's staff, depending on vendor operations.    
12. In terms of its after sales support, the vendor's application engineers are readily available to answer questions on an ongoing basis.    
13. The vendor can provide technical support throughout the program—from integration, to spare parts, to troubleshooting the entire system—and it can solve critical issues as they are encountered.    
14. The vendor has an unlimited number of certified smart labels.    
15. In terms of rapid development capability of custom label formats, and based on the tools it uses, the vendor offers a part of the software you need to buy.    
16. The vendor is partnered with other RFID companies that can leverage expertise and software solutions. Most RFID vendors are teaming up to offer a complete RFID installation—usually one software, one hardware, and services are all integrated as a single solution from three vendors. If this is the case, always define a single point of contact for the initial issue. Then it may be addressed by the corresponding vendor that provided that particular part of the solution. This is key if there is more than one vendor for the solution.    

Table 1. A checklist of vendor requirements.

Setting Up a Development Environment

When creating a test lab, the organization should assess future requirements in order to build a scalable environment—one that can rapidly adapt to changes. Think of the RFID vendor as a partner. The long-term RFID team (vendor and internal team) will successfully guide the organization through deployment, and it will accommodate growing and changing needs.

Best practices suggest that the development environment be a smaller version of what is actually in practice. But reconstructing a smaller production model may be difficult, if not impossible. To construct a smaller production environment requires additional cost for equipment, which can easily spiral out of control by doubling the effort. The cost of hardware, software, and middleware may be prohibitive as well; the physical layout of a portal setup at a dock door or of a conveyor hookup may pose a problem if these are not available to the RFID interrogation zones. The equipment, portals, antennae, readers, and host are the minimum components that should be erected. A setup environment will allow the solution of problems that may occur in the production environment before implementation.

A test lab is valuable not only for testing, but for further RFID development, as it serves several purposes. Through a test lab, the organization can and should validate business processes, data, and interfacing issues back to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. It should also be able to gain an understanding of the physics and limitations of the technology and to identify reader placement issues, location of physical space on the product, label placement, and possible correction procedures if a no-read error occurs. Most importantly, the organization should be able to learn these lessons before “going live.” Organizations need to be aware of (and should strive to avoid) the following pitfalls: problems caused during testing and with signal strength and reader placement, noise issues, difficulties with label placement, and incompatibility of the tag with the package.

Label Placement and Testing

Label placement and understanding of the material, substrates, and interference factors are critical to a complete RFID installation. The process of affixing the label to the package is an exercise in trial and error. To find the maximum interaction between the tags and readers, best practices suggest that organizations create a detailed configuration. To effectively record where the optimal placement will be, start at the upper left-hand side of the package, and methodically move the label down in equal segments. Record if the read rate is successful or not with that configuration.

Label Placement Procedure

  • Start by moving across the face of the package. This method should identify non- or limited read zones on the item.

  • Keep the reader at a fixed location while taking each measurement to ensure accuracy of the signal and read rate failure.

  • Track any changes in all the possible angles that the product may be placed at between the interrogation fields.

  • Place the reader at another location, and monitor the read rate response from that new location.

  • Chart the location of the reader with respect to the item and its distance from the scanner, as well as possible speed issues that may arise if the reader is on a conveyor or moving product. A close record of documentation should be created during testing, as this will be useful during implementation. There is no formula for the placement of labels onto containers. This task requires close attention to the details of label placement, package design, read ranges, and materials to which the tag has to be applied.

As a component of the vendor selection, verify that the vendor can provide a batch of electronic product code (EPC) numbers for use. Best practices suggest that to avoid delays in implementation and cutting into testing time, have the EPC numbers available; this will shorten the time to acquire the numbers. The organization will then have the means to test read ranges, data capture speeds, and read rates. From here, possible failure points may include measurements to determine distances the label can be read from, products affecting the radio frequency (RF) signals, location of the label upon the carton, and various read angles. As the testing revelations become apparent, the user can become more familiar with the data, scans, read rates, and other components of the RFID system. Insights regarding efficiency, improvements, and system accuracy will be discovered and investigated. These best practice testing approaches outline the following pitfalls that may occur based on item properties and tag characteristics:

  • Label placement
    The placement of the label on the container is vital, as it can make the difference between a 100 percent read rate and a 0 percent read rate. Other factors, such as the angle of the scanner, distance from the scanner, and the material itself, can even scatter the communication signal, causing a no-read scenario. Be mindful of these conditions when placing the label on the package. Try to investigate similar products that are currently using RFID, and use these as a baseline or starting point for the testing. Similar products from another manufacturer that has succeeded in label positioning could save time—don't try to reinvent the wheel.

  • Package design
    Positioning the tag may become an exercise in troubleshooting, as many packages are designed with a marketing and graphics approach, and a lack of space may prove to be an obstacle in placing the tag. In such cases, the addition of a smart label will be difficult, but best practices suggest being methodical and persistent in finding a space to affix the label in order to cover the entire surface of the package during testing. For items that are too small to affix a label onto, innovative ways to hang the tag are needed.

  • Label requirements
    MH10, a widely adopted bar code label format, comes prepared and ready to use (identified). The addition of a smart label combined with the bar code label is complementary, thereby offering a viable solution. Specific label requirements can further advance the identification of the product down to an item level, and they are usually mandated by a partner, such as DoD, Wal-Mart, Target, Metro, etc. Some requirements are posted on www.epcglobal.org, but these are usually passed down to the governing body or the company driving the compliance.

  • Package contents
    While conducting tests on products, it may be discovered that certain materials themselves are the culprit for a non-read. Certain packaging mediums and their contents diffuse the RF signal, causing failed read rates. Such materials as liquids tend to absorb radio waves, while metals tend to deflect and diffract radio waves. Items like water and soup are particularly troublesome, as the liquid and the medium used for its packaging require extensive testing. Items with limited space for label placement require extensive experimentation to find which configuration works best. That is, small products may not have the physical room to accommodate a tag, and innovative techniques to affix the label may be required.

  • Good and quiet labels
    For an RFID label to be considered good, it requires RFID data correctly written to the tag, the correct image printed, and content data verified against the source. An encoder (an RFID label–capable printer) prints the tag information onto the substrate and then verifies the validity of the tag. When one of these requirements cannot be met, the tag will be voided in the system, and a new label will be printed to replace the defective tag. This precaution will save EPC numbers from being consumed needlessly.


    A widely adopted best practices approach is to control the creation of the additional EPC numbers as an extended form of inventory control. A quiet label is a verified tag that is not readable from a normal distance. It is possible to have defective tags within a roll of labels. This means that a specific label may not be readable once activated. The print and encoding system (which prints and encodes the physical tag, and is usually a bar code printer with an RFID module) should be designed to distinguish between quiet and non-quiet labels. This will remove another possible source of error from the system.

The factors listed above are all conditions that should be addressed to obtain effective read rates. Any item listed above, either singularly or in combination with another, can and will affect the read rate. Once tag placements have been validated on the packages, further testing and validation to auxiliary systems should be performed. The auxiliary systems will require interface compatibility with the RFID system, and bidirectional dataflow will be necessary.

Conclusion

Once the preparatory site survey (discussed previously in this series) is complete, the steps outlined above for phase one of an RFID project should be performed, with development of a test environment and corrective label placement procedures being key. In addition, the vendor selection checklist provided above is a useful tool that helps organizations move forward with a smooth RFID implementation.

Stay tuned for the next phases of an RFID implementation, continuing 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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