Simple, fast and loaded with data, Radio-frequency identification (RFID) offers a chance to take organization and efficiency to a whole new level. However, the opportunity largely depends on whether the technology is right for your business. A mismatch can waste substantial amounts of time and money. Here are some important realities to tag before you rush in.
You Need an RFID Partner You Can Trust.
RFID technology has a bumpy history going back many years. Initial hopes for a simple, blanket solution across industries turned into a sobering realization that RFID is a great fit for some businesses but not others. Missteps and misunderstandings when RFID first emerged threw its evolution off track, but now the technology is starting to gel while the exploration of how to use it effectively is becoming clearer.
“RFID is finding its role as a powerful solution in very specific applications,” says Mike Markham, Commenco’s Director of Technology Solutions. “We’ve seen it really make a difference for certain businesses while others have skipped it altogether because it just didn’t’ make sense for them.”
RFID is sticky stuff. Doing your homework upfront is critical and you need a knowledgeable partner to help guide you. “We get calls from business owners who are sure they need RFID,” says Craig Lynn, Commenco Business Development Manager and label specialist. “Sometimes they’re wrong and surprised to find there are other solutions that work better for them.”
Beware of a business willing to introduce you to RFID labels and supporting equipment without some probing discussion first. The initial plunge into RFID isn’t something to take lightly but you may find vendors more than happy to take your money. Markham says nailing down the right solution just isn’t that easy.
“Commenco specialists will help you determine if RFID is a good fit before you go any further. The reality is a more standard barcoding system may be a better way to go for what you’re trying to do with your operation. We always want to go with what’s going to work best for your specific business.”
RFID does work much harder than barcode systems. Reading RFID tags is instant and automatic but bar codes must be manually scanned. And it’s true that barcoding can be stretched to handle greater amounts of data, but it still pales in comparison to RFID’s capacity to truly unlock a data-rich process and all its many benefits. Unlike barcoding systems, RFID can also both read and write data to labels. “Take a complicated industrial system for example,” says Lynn. “Every time a worker performs service on the system, they can note it on the RFID tag so that the next worker knows about it.”
Sounds impressive, huh? But whether it’s right for you remains the core question and Lynn says ‘no’ is a common answer, “I’d say these days businesses go with barcodes about 90-percent of the time. But the ones that do go with RFID are really happy with the results because it’s a great match. We can point you in the right direction either way.”
You Need a Problem RFID is Designed to Solve.
Lynn spends a lot of time reading up on RFID usage studies. As application of the technology evolves, he’s focused on the new doors it’s opening. “We’re finding more and more problems that need RFID and they’re coming from all kinds of directions. When you think about the original idea of simplifying inventory tracking, we’ve really come a long way.”
‘Open’ RFID systems are often huge, complicated and expensive corporate endeavors, connecting multiple businesses over large distances. Closed RFID systems are more common among Commenco customers. They’re typically deployed within a single facility to gather, track and communicate data within its own walls.
You don’t need to be a high-tech company to make use of RFID’s high-tech capabilities. Lynn has turned to RFID to help small to medium-size businesses in a variety of niche markets. A gunstock manufacturer, for example, needed a fast and easy way to keep customers posted on progress during long production timelines. “Now when they get a call from a customer asking ‘where’s my gun stock?’ they can use an RFID reader to find that particular needle in their complicated production haystack and provide an update.”
Basic RFID tracking and coordinating functions have also helped clothing stores round up garments that routinely wind up on the wrong racks, and other retailers have welcomed the way the technology can simplify complicated merchandise return processes. “We’ve talked to a company that sells and cleans uniforms,” adds Markham. “They put an RFID tag in each uniform to always know which uniforms belong to which customers and which ones need to be laundered. It really does the trick for them.”
“We worked with a munitions manufacturer who came to us confident that they needed RFID to sort sensitive products,” says Lynn. “In that case, we found a different way to solve their sorting problem and convinced them to go with barcoding instead. It all depends on the problem.”
On the other end of the spectrum, complex RFID systems are not uncommon in large industrial environments focused on high-value items. Imagine jet engines with RFID labels that track their journey from production to installation and offer critical backtracking when a software upgrade or a recall is needed. You won’t find much RFID in warehouses and distribution centers that revolve around picking, packaging and shipping small products, but Markham says there’s some interesting experimentation going on that could change the game in other ways.
“There’s work being done to combine drones with RFID systems to do larger scale inventory coordination much faster and more accurately. Rather than having people crawl between rows of huge stacks of pallets to scan pallet labels, a drone might be used to map the entire floor and fly close enough to the labels to read all of them in a fraction of the time.”
RFID seems to really be taking off in healthcare settings. Data-rich labels trace equipment and even patients inside hospitals where strict tracking, control and compliance goals are a perfect match for the technology. Markham says hospitals are complicated, busy places hungry for more advanced solutions.
“Coordinating everything from test tubes to expensive mobile surgical equipment and medical devices is a very big challenge in a hospital. RFID helps keep track of it all, ensuring everything is in the right place when it’s needed and benefiting the right patients at the right times. Manually scanning all of those things just wouldn’t work nearly as well and barcode labels can only hold so much information.”
It’s a Bigger Responsibility Than You May Think.
Look at RFID label prices next to bar codes and other, more traditional labels and it might give you sticker shock. Depending on your needs, the cost of a single RFID label can range from around a dime to several dollars. Compare that to tenth-of-a-cent cost ranges for traditional labels. “It may not sound expensive at first,” says Lynn. “But when you start labeling millions of items, you get into real money.”
How far you want to go might dictate an RFID budget more than anything else. Depending on the kind of work you do and how you do it, you’ll need specific hardware to support RFID labels. Commenco offers a spectrum of RFID equipment ranging from mobile readers to the high-tech labels of course, and the right printers to bring them to life. “RFID doesn’t have to be expensive,” Lynn emphasizes. “It just depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. The bigger the problem, the more money you can expect to spend.”
Implementation is a big responsibility, too. Lynn says designing, laying out and testing your RFID system is hard, critical work because it ensures equipment will deliver results. Hardware must be chosen, positioned and ready to perform with reading ranges that are close enough to be reliable and unobstructed.
“Be prepared for a lot of testing. You have to zero-in on your goal, what you’re trying to read, and what’s acceptable in terms of results. Most businesses want labels read successfully 100% of the time, but some can afford to settle for 90% which can impact how much money you’ll need to spend.”
And Commenco can help you flag problems that can interfere with your RFID effort or even take the technology off the table. Products and materials containing lots of liquid or metal don’t play well with radio frequencies. “Let’s say you have a pallet of 50 containers full of liquid,” explains Markham. “Your RFID reader may only detect half of those containers, maybe the ones on the outside or the top but not the middle. So it can defeat the whole purpose. That’s what we can help you sort out.”
Sorting out RFID, from whether it’s a good match for your operation, methods and materials, to how it might effectively solve your problems, is a Commenco specialty. We’ve watched RFID evolve over the years and we continue to track its successes and setbacks to keep our customers in tune with the potential for its application. Reading this blog post is a great way to jump start a conversation about your business.