Three steps to RFID success: From the sports field to the supply chain

Posted on 6 Feb 2023 by The Manufacturer

This year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Mario Cardullo securing his patent for radio frequency identification (RFID) in 1973. The technology may be ‘new’ in the sense that its commercialisation is just now occurring on a similar trajectory that barcode technology did in the 1970s, but it’s far from nascent.

In fact, as of 2021, companies around the world had bought over 100 billion RAIN RFID tags, and full-scale deployments are becoming more prolific in manufacturing, retail, healthcare, sports, and supply chain environments by the day.

Track and trace requirements and practices are an essential part of any number of industries including food and beverage, pharmaceutical and automotive manufacturing, warehouse operations and retail inventory management.

If you’re still relying exclusively on barcode-based systems to monitor and manage inventory when regulatory requirements arrive, you’re going to find yourself paying the price – either in lost business, fines, or rushed RFID solution implementations.

So, here’s what you need to do to set yourself up for success, no matter what’s driving you to embrace RFID technology.

Step One: Build organisational knowledge around RFID

It’s important to do your research. I see a lot of people draw parallels between RFID and barcode technology, and that will get you in trouble. Both technologies may be used for track and trace, inventory control and other overlapping applications. But that does not make them ‘similar’ technologies.

Learn the language of RFID and ask lots of questions. Just like automation or mobility, RFID is a broad technology category. Read blog posts, listen to podcasts, attend webinars and industry events, and speak one-on-one with people who have extensive domain expertise in RFID, such as the RAIN Alliance or GS1 members.

Step Two: Find an experienced RFID integrator

Work with someone who has expertise deploying solutions in your industry. In other words, don’t go to a retail-focused integrator for a package/parcel RFID solution. And if you’re a drug store, make sure you choose someone with both retail and healthcare/pharma experience and possibly even food and beverage experience, if you stock such goods.

When you sit down to speak with integrators or host them on site, start by scoping the problem. Focus in narrowly on the issue you’re trying to solve or the objective you’re trying to meet with RFID.

Do you need better inventory visibility? Are you struggling to find critical assets? Are you losing returnable containers? Once you define desired outcomes, then you can start to talk about the changes needed to get there. But don’t steer the conversation to specific technology solutions too quickly.

Avoid overly broad ‘boiling the ocean’ types of solutions – at least until you gain some experience with RFID technology. And don’t get too caught up in comparing RFID technologies on your own. An RFID expert can provide clarity on how the recommended RFID technology works.

An expert can help you understand the differences between RFID and other location technologies. You might learn that you actually need something else to achieve your objective or solve your problem. So, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions about what’s being recommended and why – and why a different type of technology is not recommended. This is particularly true when it comes to RFID printers, encoders, inlays, tags and labels.

Remember, RFID solutions are ultimately about data, and it’s the role of the printer/encoder to make sure that your tag data is encoded accurately and efficiently. If you can’t trust the data on your tags, it doesn’t matter how fast or far away your readers can read them.

Of course, before you recommend a printer to your boss or decide which you’re going to buy, you’ll also want to speak with a trusted RFID advisor to confirm what type of printer and what size printer you need to support all your RFID applications appropriate to a manufacturing facility, warehouse or healthcare setting.

It’s also vital to select the appropriate RFID inlay and label. If an RFID tag does not meet readability requirements or is not suitable for your surface or environment, you stand to lose a lot, including operational visibility, inventory, customers’ business, and a competitive edge. So, don’t just go with the first RFID label someone recommends.

Step Three: Test your proposed solution to build trust

Success stories are great, but they aren’t your story. Just because a competitor is using RFID a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you. Likewise, the solution design, development and implementation process is exceptionally personal to you.

Be sure your integrator draws on best practices and past experiences but prioritises your unique challenges, system architecture, and change management requirements. This includes the outside-in change management needed, considering the typical upstream and downstream effects of RFID implementations.

If you have the time and resources to do a proof of concept, do it. This ‘soft launch’ period enables you to solicit feedback from front-line workers, partners, customers and others impacted by your new RFID-driven processes and make adjustments before you go live and people assume the project is complete (even though you and I know constant refinement will be key).

Finally, validate with industry bodies. AIM, The Auburn RFID Lab, DoseID, GS1, Axia Institute, RAIN RFID Alliance and the NFC Forum are some of the principal associations helping to create common industry standards. These groups also have member forums and events to share best practices.

Michael is happy to discuss how RFID can help your business. You can reach him here.

About the author

Michael Fein is responsible for global product management of Zebra’s passive RFID printer encoder portfolio. He has more than 15 years of experience in the RFID industry, with roles spanning R&D, Engineering and Product Management.

He became fascinated by RFID technology in 2003 while working for a global ink and coatings company where he was instrumental in developing the first high-speed printed RFID antennas. Since joining Zebra in 2006, he’s led numerous successful technology developments, product launches, and RFID deployments.

Michael holds a BSE and MSE in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan.