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How To Scale an RFID Project from Pilot to Production

Now you’ve made the commitment to turn the cost of an EPC (Electronic Product Code) retail compliance mandate into a supply chain enhancing investment that will boost your bottom line, here’s how to ensure success as you roll out an RFID project from the pilot stage to full production.

Whether you tag merchandise in your DC at a VAS (Value Add Station), or you have your products tagged at source, all successful RFID implementations turn the cost of an EPC mandate into benefits for your organization and share a number of key characteristics.

Who Is Your RFID Champion?

The most important ingredient for RFID success is project ownership at the executive level. It is essential that this RFID champion has the complete backing of management, right up to the CEO. The RFID champion has to push the RFID project through milestones and must have the authority to create a cross functional team, with representation from various departments, e.g. Manufacturing, Operations, Packaging, Warehouse Management, Security, Finance and IT.

We have seen installation schedules stretch out and costs spiral because of a lack of ownership of the project. It is the RFID Champion who is responsible to ensure that team members are available as needed, and that there are dedicated technical resources for the duration of the implementation to ensure project success. These technical resources must have a working knowledge of the business application software, databases, corporate system architecture, infrastructure, and facilities.

What is Your RFID Plan?

The RFID Champion should follow a deployment plan with milestones and measurable performance gains. Here is a typical five stage deployment plan:

1. Research & Scope
2. Survey & Document
3. Test & Analyze
4. Pilot & Refine
5. Roll Out & Production

Research & Scope

What can you accomplish? What ways do you envision RFID will help your business?

RFID can improve your bottom line by reducing inventory audits, increasing stock visibility, reducing operating costs, increasing asset utilization, reducing shrinkage, and other areas. Define where you will get the greatest impact for your investment. Speak with your customers, and friendly competitors, to see how they are using RFID to improve their operations.

RFID is an IT project that impacts operations. Define a Statement of Work (SOW) for the software integration points that will need to be addressed. Meet with RFID vendors who have experience in your industry, and learn how they can help you achieve your objectives, starting with a site survey.

Survey & Document

An RFID site survey is a physical survey of the premises where the RFID processes will occur. A survey identifies the optimal locations for readers so the RFID processes work all of the time.

The goal of an RFID site survey is to gather enough information and data to determine the number and placement of readers that will provide the coverage required. The site survey will also detect the presence of radio interference coming from other sources that could degrade the performance of the RFID system, as well as analyze the electrical and data network requirements at the proposed read points.

Once you have the final site survey report in hand, you can put actual numbers in a spreadsheet and develop a realistic budget.

Test & Analyze

Before you commit to pilot RFID, you need be sure your product will perform when tagged. For example, if you sell footwear, and you want to be sure that your proposed RFID system can read fast moving cartons on a conveyor, then you will need to ship a dozen or more cartons of your merchandise to an RFID testing lab that contains a race track with RFID readers. This high speed simulation will determine the probability of success of your proposed solution.

Once you are assured that RFID will perform in your environment and with your products, you are ready to pilot a solution.

Pilot & Refine

Pick one application area to pilot RFID. Your RFID solution provider can help you identify where to pilot RFID so it will not disrupt your existing workflow.

Typically, the RFID hardware is temporarily installed so it can be moved easily as you refine the system based on the results of the pilot. Software needs to be configurable to allow the ease of adapting and changing as the pilot revels process improvements. Often a custom mounting solution may be crafted for the pilot, but keep in mind that temporary mounts will not stand up to the rigors of a full production system, and custom hardware will be difficult to roll out.

How long should you pilot RFID? The easy answer is as long as you need to gather enough data. Each application area you target (receiving, shipping, packing, etc.) will need to be piloted, and will need to stand on its own merits.

At the conclusion of the RFID pilot, you will have the data you need to make a decision whether to schedule a roll out.

Roll Out & Production

The speed of the roll out will be determined by your choice of hardware and software, available internal resources, and geographic factors.

The choice of RFID hardware is critical for the following reasons: Instead of replicating a custom, temporary mounting solution that was OK for a pilot, an off the shelf portal solution that is in stock and ready to ship can be quickly and easily rolled out to meet any schedule. In addition, RFID technology is constantly evolving and in five years, you may want to swap out readers or antennas for higher performance newer models.

For example, the Return On Investment (ROI) on RFID portals shouldn’t stop- ever. Once the portal and initial electronics have been installed, the electronic parts can then be changed out many times over the life span of the portal hardware — RFID Readers, Antennas and other accessories such as Motion Sensors, Photo-eyes, Light Stacks, can be swapped out as needed. This way you will not be locked in to one reader vendor or technology. A quality RFID portal should last in the field for more than 30 years.

Your choice of RFID software, too, is a critical factor in the roll out. Ideally, you should be able to quickly and easily create read zones and reader or antenna configurations without custom programming. While one team is installing the hardware, the RFID Champion can launch a browser session on any device and watch the system roll out as each reader comes on line and the RFID tag activity begins to populate the charts and graphs of the RFID software dashboard.