Adopting radio frequency identification (RFID) asset tracking for the first time involves more than just slapping tags on traceable materials. It requires research, expert support, and a well-thought-out plan.
RFID can be a huge boost to a company’s productivity and reliability. RFID can generate valuable real-time data that helps a company avoid product and equipment shortages, ensure reliable, on-time delivery or service, track parts inventory, provide maintenance history in the field, and much, much more. But like any technology, those embracing it for the first time should know why they are doing it and how it can improve their business, not just what it costs. When implemented properly, with realistic goals and the right technology, RFID pays for itself quickly, again and again. Doing it right means recognizing and avoiding some critical mistakes—common ones—that can leave a new adopter regretting the initial RFID investment and leery of spending more.
These are what I call the dirty dozen—12 mistakes that can make an RFID investment go bad—and how to avoid them.
1. RFID is not for everyone
RFID has come a long way. It is the right step forward for many businesses. But not all. Some may see it as must-have technology, without having a firm grip on how it would improve their businesses. Perhaps a competitor is using it. Or they like being early adopters. That is well and good, but not enough to justify an initial RFID investment. Step one in making a good RFID investment is knowing why it is right for you. How would you use the intelligence the data provides? Are you ready to change your operations, even if that costs money, too? Might another technology do just as well for now, with less cost and complexity? For example, do you do any electronic asset tracking now? Do you use bar coding, and if so, how well has it been working for you? Is it now falling short? These are all good questions to ask yourself to avoid making a poor RFID investment.
2. Pain point not clearly defined
It is fine to have general goals of improvement. Every manager wants to optimize his or her company’s operational efficiency and asset management. However, when considering a RFID system, some first-time adopters go in without an understanding of what they are trying to accomplish and end up buying too much or too little RFID. What pain points do you want to address? Are you losing, or misrouting, too many assets? Is it hard to find inventory in your plant or warehouse? Have you incurred costs, or faced unscheduled downtime, because the incorrect tool was inserted into a machine, damaging one or the other? Whatever specific pain you are experiencing should be analyzed, quantified, and given a dollar cost value. You should be able to estimate the theoretical savings and later benchmark actual savings achieved by adopting RFID.
3. ROI estimate is inaccurate or incomplete
Now that you have an accurate picture of how much your pain points are costing you, estimating the return on investment (ROI) and time frame for achieving it should be straightforward. Should be, but it is not always. Hardware is sexy. Software is not. Focusing on hardware alone can lead to seriously underestimating how long it will take to recover an RFID investment. A complete RFID system is a capital investment. The majority of the investment is the software and integration portions, not the hardware. An accurate ROI calculation will take all costs into consideration, including training and potential operational changes to make good use of the data. Once all of this has been considered, it may become a capital investment decision the chief financial officer makes. In most cases, it will not be a major investment, and the ROI will be fully captured in fewer than 18 months. Do not let a single outside party do the ROI for you. Do it yourself, or even better, have multiple parties give an estimate. That way, you can be sure all angles have been considered and a consensus ROI figure emerges.
4. Not understanding what the technology can do
Some new adopters are confused about RFID’s capabilities. They often have a preconceived idea that they can slap a smart label on their inventory, tooling, or shipping containers, and they will be traceable automatically at all times. That is not true. A successful RFID system requires many properly matched and integrated hardware and software components. Do some research about the technology. Ask the people selling RFID lots of questions. The time to understand what the technology can and cannot do is before you sign the purchase order.
5. Not involving the IT department
Also, do not wait until the last minute to bring your information technology (IT) department into the RFID discussions. Their involvement is critically important. RFID, after all, is all about data. The data has to get through their system and come out in a useful format. This is IT’s turf, and the importance of their buy-in to the process, system, and output cannot be understated. Respect the maxim regarding RFID projects: It is not serious until IT is involved.
Some new adopters are confused about RFID’s capabilities. They often have a preconceived idea that they can slap a smart label on their inventory, tooling, or shipping containers, and they will be traceable automatically at all times. That is not true. A successful RFID system requires many properly matched and integrated hardware and software components. Do some research about the technology. Ask the people selling RFID lots of questions. The time to understand what the technology can and cannot do is before you sign the purchase order. – See more at:
6. Not considering the correct frequency RFID
Now, let’s get a little more technical. The choice of frequencies refers to the size of the radio waves passing between RFID components. The wrong choice may add cost or introduce inefficiency. Passive ultrahigh frequency (UHF) technology is the most versatile choice now, capable of covering a broader read range—and hence supporting more applications—than ever. Where historically high frequency (HF) technology was used for short distance read ranges, the same results now can be successfully obtained using UHF technology. Today’s smaller UHF antennas and passive UHF tags have excellent short read ranges, down to inches, or long read ranges even beyond 50 feet. This can make passive UHF an attractive alternative to either HF or active UHF.
7. Active or passive RFID? You can go wrong
An internal battery powers active RFID tags, and the radio waves from the interrogating device power passive RFID tags. With active RFID systems, there are a couple of potential pitfalls to keep in mind. First is the expected life of the batteries in the transponders (tags). In your proposed application, will it be practical to change the batteries when they need replacing? More often than not, it is simpler to change the tags. This is an expense, both for new tags and the labor time to do the job. Also, your Wi-Fi system may not be able to cope with active tags. Such an RFID system may overpower an existing Wi-Fi network, leaving both systems battling for bandwidth. When it comes to active RFID, consider whether you would be better off upgrading your Wi-Fi, too.
8. Not all tags are robust enough for their environment
Finding the right tag is critically important to the success of your RFID project. Yet, some adopters fail to make sure their tags are tough enough for all the operating and environmental conditions to which they will be subjected. The wrong tag will not only jeopardize the success of the project, but could provide a false impression about the overall effectiveness of the technology. Consider the operating environment, and find tags tough enough for it. Will they be exposed to harsh temperatures, a lot of water, or high humidity? Will the tags need to operate on metal or in a metal-heavy environment? Or are they destined for nonconductive surfaces? What read range is needed? Is extended memory needed? Among the many options for tags today you will find solutions to any application-specific requirements!
9. In choosing hardware, there is such a thing as too little or too much
Choosing the wrong antenna and reader is another common misstep. You should consider the size and strength of the antenna to make sure it will align with the read range needed. Select an antenna that allows you to read all the tags desired and not more or less. Standard patch antennas are the norm, but there are new technologies on the market that can be ideal for tougher applications such as server racks, doorways, and smart shelves. Readers come in many different configurations as well and can be selected to fit your application. Options include the number of antenna ports, power levels, and the antenna range. Larger, extended-range readers have many features to cover most applications, with all the bells and whistles. For some new RFID adopters, buying such readers may seem like future-proofing. However, the technology is getting better all the time, and businesses might be perfectly well served starting with a smaller, short-range reader. As they say, there is no need to bring a bazooka when a fly swatter will do the job.
10. Making the wrong software decision
There are very good options available for RFID software. Choose carefully, because the wrong choice can be limiting, or at the other extreme, overload users. Configurable middleware packages offer an easy-to-use bridge from the reader to your core IT system. Many expert RFID integrators supply excellent middleware and software packages. Also, there are options for application-specific software for handheld readers. This can be important for users in the field. A system will be even more efficient when that user does not have to think about how to manage the data; the application software does it for them. Such a system will be easier to master and foolproof.
11. Not using an expert integrator
Maybe this should be the first on our must-not-do list, but assume you have taken the trouble to do all of the internal assessments of needs and learned the RFID basics. That makes you an informed first adopter. However, putting together RFID hardware and software to create a properly functioning system is a systematic process involving many sequential steps. Often companies try to install RFID themselves only to have it fall short of expectations because of poor implementation. Then the technology gets blamed. The burden of implementing RFID is going to fall on your IT department. So ask yourself this, and be honest, “Are we up to doing the job ourselves?” In almost all cases, the answer is no. The solution is to outsource RFID integration. An expert integrator can analyze the application, optimize the hardware, provide the appropriate software, implement and maintain the system, and even train staff. Such an integrator will bring you efficiency and results that exceed your expectations.
12. Not doing a proof of concept
Last but not least, do not go too far too fast. Take a phased approach to your RFID implementation. Start with a small manageable portion of the project. Perform thorough testing at each stage of the implementation. Let the system run for a while so you can identify any needed adjustments. And be flexible. You may need to change the reader or antenna that seemed like the best choice before starting. Before relying on your RFID network, satisfy yourself that everything is functioning as it should by doing a proof of concept (POC). The POC will help ensure everything fits together in practice like it did on paper.
As you can see, there is a lot of depth and scope to selecting and implementing a good RFID system. Keeping all these factors in mind upfront should result in a smoother process and improved ROI.
A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.