Preparing for Enterprise RFID

The evolution of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags into a viable enterprise enabler is almost complete. The pressure put on suppliers by such companies as Wal-Mart and Tescos will, through commercial inertia and economies of scale, ensure the price of individual tags and associated readers and writers will come down to a level that is acceptable to more and more companies.

The important thing for these companies to take account of is how to prepare current systems to be flexible enough to incorporate RFID data feeds, how best to implement the technology, exactly where and how — or indeed if — the technology should be implemented, and also how best to structure future systems development work to enable easier integration into the enterprise.

RFID Tags and Readers

RFID tags and readers are a set of technologies that enable remote identification of a unique product. A basic setup would consist of a tag and a reader. The reader broadcasts a radio signal, which is received by the tag; this radio signal then powers the tag to send an identifying signal back to the receiver. Active tags do not use the power supplied by the reader but have power supply embedded within the tag. Tags and readers can be of several different types.

The first type is low frequency. These tags operate in the 125- to 134-KHz range and are already widely deployed and proven. The low-frequency specification is globally recognized and adhered to, thus mitigating any problems with nonstandard hardware. Multiple items are difficult to read in close proximity, as reading collisions can occur. Low-frequency reading ranges tend to be short — approximately 1.5 meters. These tags require long windings of copper wire and so tend to be bulkier than both high-frequency and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) tags. Implementations have included cattle tracking and vehicle proximity detection.

The second option is high frequency. These tags operate in the 13.56-MHz range and conform to a global standard. Tags tend to be low-cost, and they work well in a humid environment. High frequency also tends to have better collision detection, allowing the scanning of multiple items in a confined environment. Again, these readers tend to be short range and have difficulties working when tags are located on metal items. Deployments have included tracking of airline baggage or implementation of clothing tracking.

The final type is Ultra High Frequency (UHF). These tags operate in the 868- to 915-MHz range, which is not yet an accepted global standard. UHF readers have a longer range but are affected by humidity. Most companies are waiting for a clear global standard to be accepted before implementing a UHF-based solution. Current implementations include access control.

RFID has been seen as a replacement for bar codes, but the technology improves on bar codes by allowing a completely unique ID for every tag. Tags also can contain an area that can be read from and written to. This area has been used for storing such data as expiry dates for perishable goods, indicating when they need to be disposed of. Once the items are disposed of, the tag on the container can be rewritten with the expiry date of its new contents. This capability is one reason why RFID chips are often called smart tags.

At the present time, the cost of individual tags is prohibitive to some implementers, who are choosing to stand on the sidelines until a more attractive economic model can be built. The current implementation leaders will build up experience and business advantage at the risk of overspending in the inception phase. Current passive tag costs can be as low as 25 U.S. cents, but in comparison to a bar code, which has a marginal cost, a real business case must be made for introducing RFID. This business case can be built around enhanced and timely data and the automated way in which it is acquired.

Systems and Implementations

The issues surrounding the hardware implementation of RFID concern the types of tags you are going to use, the environment they are going to be used in and how readers need to be configured. The hardware side concerns number and location of readers, a not inconsiderable investment in some instances. If a store deploys smart shelving, then it will require that short-range readers be deployed to all shelves to be covered. Then they need the infrastructure to transmit data capture to the relevant back-end systems. Such infrastructure could be wired Ethernet or wireless 802.11 to reduce the cabling costs.

One thing the adoption of tagging is likely to generate is data. If you have tags and you read them, there must be a reason for you to do it. This data is valuable to you, so you must have access to it. Picture a supermarket with smart-shelving and tags embedded onto its products. This data — in and of itself — holds little value in a systems oasis. One of the important things to do with the data coming from the shelf is to feed it to your replenishment system, which can either make a stock-purchasing decision based on predefined rules or inform the appropriate merchandiser so it can make a decision.

In a fashion-driven environment, monitoring where stock is bought on the shop floor provides you with accurate buying patterns, inform you about which store layouts are working well and enable your buyers and merchandisers to have the most up-to-date view of the workings of the system. Smart shelving enables the retailer to track the progress of the shopper through the store, identifying choke points and areas that can enhance their offering and boost revenue.

To this end, it is best if your systems are open and flexible. The average enterprise is going to have many disparate systems, which may not always communicate well with each other. Your business needs a defined strategy for intersystem communication. There are a number of options available, with pros and cons for each one. An important aspect of this is choosing one of the options and then applying it across as many systems as possible.

Only by doing this will you be left with a system that can extend functionality across the business and not just in niche areas.

Middleware and Supporting Technologies

The Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) is a mature technology for remote communication between components of one system and remote components in the same system or a completely separate system. CORBA implementations have a history of being complicated and expensive, but they do allow systems written in different languages and on different platforms to communicate with one another.

Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) is not a communications protocol but a standard or platform designed mainly by Sun. By adhering to the standards, applications are able to call or invoke available methods on other systems. This is a strong standard and is widely adopted in larger enterprises but does not — by default — interact well with any of the other standards.

Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) is Microsoft’s version of CORBA that provides standard interfaces to and management to remote communication with system components. DCOM is primarily a Microsoft standard and implementation — although there are others — and, as such, does not lend itself to communication with other types of implementations.

Finally, Web services as a technology is currently building up a strong head of steam. Initially, it was touted as a way for companies to sell a system service easily, such as credit card authorization over the Internet. However, the strength of Web services is that it is implemented using a strongly defined protocol. This protocol is the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which can be implemented by all vendors and can allow any system that can read it to receive messages from any system that can write it. The adoption of SOAP will leave systems capable of broad-level interaction and the RFID data capable of being fed into one system and broadcast to a large number of systems.

Business Processes

Adoption of RFID will be disruptive to the business process because the amount and quality of data that will be produced will expand exponentially. An important question to come from this is what to do with the data and how to distribute it in a timely and appropriate manner. With constant and up-to-date information flowing into your systems, there is increased need for managers, merchandisers, buyers, warehouse staff and others to have appropriate delivery of the information.

If a threshold has been exceeded, then certain people might want to be automatically contacted. To do that, you must have the ability to address messages in a heterogeneous way. A user might want to be informed by e-mail during work hours but by an SMS message after hours. Users might want to access data via a desktop application, a Web front-end or a GPRS mobile solution. All of these need to be addressed.

To integrate with existing and future systems, there are several options:

  • Develop an in-house solution. This can be a long-term undertaking and will need to address many technologies with which the IT department has little experience. The upside of this is that having the business define exactly what it needs means the system and middleware that is created will exactly match what the business wants (in an ideal world).
  • Purchase a third-party solution. Middleware products are emerging to handle message delivery to multiple environments. Products such as DefyWire’s Mobility Suite allow easy integration of multiple delivery mechanisms across the business. A mobile salesperson can have the same data delivered via his or her mobile phone as somebody using a handheld PDA over a wireless network connected to the LAN.

    To gain maximum advantage from this new ability to collect valuable data, the business needs to examine its business processes. Ask the questions: Who could be interested in this data? How could it improve their performance? How can they receive this data whenever it is required? Once these questions start to be answered, the business will be in much better shape going forward.

    RFID’s Impact

    RFID will have a major impact on many business areas. Real-time feedback will be available in numerous situations where previously only a lengthy feedback loop was available. An agile business will be best placed to take advantage of this capability, and the business needs its IT systems to be both agile and open.

    Early adoption can still be a risky undertaking, but failure to understand the domain in which the business will be operating could have a negative impact on its ability to compete. At the very least, companies should look at impact analysis and trailing the technology. These trials will give feedback to the company and help them plan the next steps with greater confidence.

    For the business, the ability of RFID to gather metrics automatically adds a whole new element to the data. Businesses planning to adopt RFID must think about how this data availability can best be used and how it will impact the business process. Keep the business informed of the potential that RFID integration holds, and allow it to formulate ideas for themselves. A jump-start in this technology and a smooth integration into your business framework can give you a competitive advantage and help your business stay on the right track.

    Derren Bibby is Chief Technologist at Noblestar. He has over 10 years of expertise in IT architecture, analysis and design.

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