In planning for an RFID implementation, several important facets of an organizations operations and products should be carefully reviewed for changes that can enhance RFID results. This last part of a three-part series explores these areas, which include data management and integration, package engineering, site engineering and device management.
Data Management & Integration
Because of the volume of information stored on an RFID tag, an RFID system will create dramatically larger data flows than non-RFID operations. Depending on the intelligence and filtering built into a system, changes to the entire network from controls to bridge PCs to warehouse control systems (WCS) and warehouse management systems (WMS) may be required in order to properly handle the influx of data. More importantly, the data must not only be processed, but also be turned into useful information that will allow enhanced real-time decisions.
Organizations planning RFID implementations may not need a wholesale transformation of their systems, but they should carefully evaluate the capacity of existing systems to handle significant changes. Handling the volume of data, as well as RFID-specific data, is one issue, but more critical is the need to build additional intelligence into the system to leverage the increased knowledge provided by the tags and additional scanning. To gain this added intelligence, an operations WMS may require additional modules.
If an organizations WMS is not able to make immediate use of the data, it is likely that operations will not be impacted enough to provide a significant return on the investment in RFID. Though automating processes via RFID will provide some benefit, customers will not be better served until the capabilities of the WMS are enhanced to further improve operations, such as decreasing order lead time or increasing order accuracy.
Data integration is also another important area to consider. Not only will legacy systems have to work with RFID data; they will have to integrate with each other. The real-time data flows that RFID provides present an additional challenge. The integration of real-time RFID data for systems currently in non-real-time transactional states, either in part or in whole, may require further change.
Another challenge in RFID implementation is package design. Initially, product packages or cartons specifically designed in size or shape to accommodate barcodes will be tagged with an RFID tag. With the new rules that apply to RFID tags, there may be an opportunity to remove some of the earlier constraints of packaging or to consider building an RFID tag into the package for use throughout the supply chain.
Just as there are limitations to barcodes, there are limitations to RFID. While these limitations are different, changes in product packaging may need to occur to address this shift in requirements. The major issue with barcodes is in dealing with odd-shaped or very small packages. Barcode readers function more effectively when the barcode is presented on a flat surface parallel to the front of the reader. Packages must also reach a minimum size in order to provide space for placing the barcode or the entire packaging label. With RFID, the package size or shape is irrelevant, and an opportunity exists to alter a specific product or package for an RFID environment. However, liquid and metal packaging components present reading issues for RFID systems.
Package designs also need to take into account the type of tag to be used and the potential need to accommodate both barcodes and RFID tags. This can affect the geometry of the tag antenna and, consequentially, the read. An additional consideration for some organizations is the environmental concern presented by the metal contained in RFID tags.
When implementing an RFID project, organizations have to consider current procedures and practices and be able to test the impact of a change prior to rolling it out to the entire operation. Will the portal readers at the dock door read only products passing through the door or will they also read the pallet at the next door? Is the RFID antenna at the shipping sorter also reading the stack of cartons sitting next to the conveyor? Will the application require a composite section in order to facilitate bottom reads from an RFID array? Does the conveyor layout mean that an RFID reader on one line will read packages on another? Providing adequate coverage without overlap is very important in ensuring that a system sees every package it needs to see without seeing others. This will generate a great deal of unnecessary noise passing over the network, which needs to be considered. Physical noise, such as RF and electrical interference, can also be an issue in site engineering and design.
With hundreds to thousands of RFID readers and printers currently on the market, device management is another issue to take into account before adopting RFID. Additional considerations include the fact that RFID devices will be distributed throughout an entire facility, that installation and recognition can take experimentation, and that management, upgrades and device repair add another level of work requirements in an operation. To keep the system running, additional network management, as well as the application and update of machine and business rules, will be required. In addition, while it appears that the current leading RFID technology standard EPCGlobal is likely to be adopted as the universal tag standard, it is still uncertain which standard for device management will be adopted.
The Near Future:
Managing Dual Technologies
There are many issues to consider in planning for an RFID implementation, and the answer to each question will vary with the specific circumstances of the organization. RFID on its face is neither easier nor more difficult to implement than barcode technology. But it is very different than barcodes in how it is implemented, in the benefits it can provide and in the functions that it can perform.
Each area of an organization should be evaluated independently to determine where RFID can provide additional functionality or results that cannot be attained today with barcoding. To do this, an organization must evaluate where it can streamline a process through automation or where it can better serve its customers by making more dynamic decisions based on the real-time data that RFID provides.
The promise of RFID is enormous, but there are real-world challenges. As with any new technology, understanding the challenges of RFID is critical in order to avoid starting an RFID project that does not account for these complexities or tries to achieve something the technology simply cannot do. In the foreseeable future, while the technology matures, managing dual barcode-RFID systems will continue to be the norm.
Until RFID reaches full maturity, it will also be critical to understand the capabilities of automation partners when undertaking initial RFID projects. Their experience in learning the parameters can enable an organization to move quickly up the learning curve. Whether an organization chooses a partner who has already worked through many of the issues or a partner who will learn as the project progresses, knowing that partners experience level before starting a project will provide a realistic idea of what to expect during the implementation process.