No Substitute For RFID ‘Launch and Learn’

“(RFID) will be a very powerful enabling technology,” Sean Campbell, IBM’s RFID leader, said today at IDC’s RFID Update confernece in Boston. “You should build through trials and controlled pilots. There is no substitute for hands-on learning, what (early RFID adopter) Gillette calls ‘launch and learn’.”

Richard Morrissey, director of e-business for American Power Conversion Corp., began APC’s RFID efforts two years ago and wasn’t sure the technology would even work for the company.

“For us, physically placing (the tags) on the product is critical,” said Morrissey, who was concerned that the wires, metals and batteries in APC’s network infrastructure would interfere with RFID’s wireless signals.

After testing antennas, tags, sensors and back-end systems from several vendors in IBM’s labs and on its own loading docks, the company designed a set-up that works.

APC, which also mapped out a 10-year plan to analyze return-on-investment, has been piloting RFID in its West Warwick, R.I., facility since September and plans to expand its efforts.

The company has plants in China, the Philippines and India. Eventually, APC wants to use RFID to pinpoint materials and products worldwide, giving the company, its suppliers, partners and retailers information to help them make decisions.

Morrissey added that involving a cross-section of employees is important to a successful implementation. Everyone from the executives to the warehouse workers must know the project goals and how the system works, he said. Finally, he stressed the need to store and organize the reams of data companies get from RFID systems.

In related news from IDC RFID Update, IBM announced new RFID-capable printers for companies in the supply chain. Big Blue’s Infoprint 6700 R40 prints both traditional bar codes and RFID tags.

The device uses an IBM Power microprocessor to transfer information — manufacture date, destination, product shelf life and location, inventory data, product handling details –to each RFID tag.

Overall, Big Blue has committed $250 million to RFID efforts and its consulting arm recently opened an privacy practice specifically geared to RFID users.

RFID became a critical IT issue for many companies after Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense mandated the use of the technology.

The systems have two components: tags, which are paper-thin, one-inch radio transponders attached to pallets, cases and eventually individual items. The other components are readers, which are panels about the size of a pizza box that receive and translate signals and shuttle data back to a network.

Retailers believe RFID will replace bar codes, vastly improve the efficiency of their supply chain and cut down on theft and loss. Still, other business sectors are looking at tags and readers for a variety of tasks.

There are still many challenges, such as the cost of tags, integration with back-end systems and industry standards, but Campbell said users should start working with the systems now.

“Start small and think big,” Morrissey said. “It’s got to be hands on. This isn’t an event, it’s a journey.”

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