Making RFID Work

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RFID, or radio frequency identification, allows companies in various industries, like retail, pharmaceutical and manufacturing, to keep better track of products. Instead of relying on bar codes, which require line-of-sight scans, RFID uses tiny tags in the devices, which transmit data to the reader or antenna. So, a busy retail giant like Wal-Mart can keep track of its inventory without having to directly scan items, or a water park can allow visitors to wear a bracelet that holds all of the money needed to access the rides. (If you’ve figured out where to hide your wallet in your swimsuit, I’m impressed.)

Many big names have jumped on the RFID bandwagon in recent years, including the U.S. Department of Defense and retailers like Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Albertsons. In addition to using RFID technology themselves, many of these organizations are requiring their suppliers to start using the technology. IDC predicted that by 2008, U.S. retailers alone will be spending almost $1.3 billion on RFID projects annually.

Technology companies big and small are working hard to build RFID solutions. According to Forrester Research Inc., suppliers will really be able to start benefiting from RFID with middleware. Several companies have been providing RFID middleware for some time, and you can bet the tech giants are going to get their piece of the pie as well. In fact, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, HP and Sun have all introduced RFID middleware products or initiatives in the past year or so. Sharyn Leaver, vice president and research director for Forrester, called RFID middleware “the tool that companies will use to manage RFID data by routing it between tag readers and the multitude of systems within their businesses.” Most of the early solutions have limited features, but you can expect that to change rapidly.

One of the giants in the space is SAP. With Infineon, SAP is providing a new RFID offering to help businesses connect and manage their RFID hardware and software, whether it’s proprietary to SAP and Infineon or not. The product is based on SAP NetWeaver, and includes SAP Auto-ID Infrastructure, SAP Event Management, preconfigured EPC reports in SAP Business Information Warehouse and out-of-the-box integration with ERP-based processes. Infineon’s solution, called You-R OPEN (for OP-erating EN-vironment), is an OE that links businesses’ existing logistics IT infrastructure to a newly installed RFID-supported logistics infrastructure. It supports all of the usual hardware that goes with RFID, including readers, smart labels, PLCs (programmable logic control), automation devices, PCs, servers, hardware components and IT networks.

Manhattan Associates, another well-established player in the space, offers multiple solutions, including RFID in a Box, which provides all of the components and services required to deploy an RFID initiative. More than middleware alone, RFID in a Box includes an integration platform (with Integration Manager and EPC Manager), services (including implementation services and product assessment) and RFID-Enabled Applications. The Integration Platform for RFID is made up of platform-independent middleware that eases deployment across various devices, eliminating a lot of the custom development that is part and parcel of most RFID initiatives.

Another major name in RFID, OATSystems offers the OAT Foundation Suite, which includes four layers to manage the RFID infrastructure from conception to production: RFID system of record, business context layer, EPC number management and RFID middleware. Part of that suite, OATmw is OAT’s middleware that includes interfaces to help configure deployment, administer and monitor the reader network, and manage RF interference.

Hewlett-Packard has partnered with OATSystems to build an RFID solution called RFID/IS (Industrial Strength), which allows businesses to capture RFID data and track the movement of goods across an extended supply chain. It combines an RFID framework with systems management, and consulting and integration services. OATSystems provides the OAT Foundation Suite, and HP adds HP OpenView management software, HP Services and HP infrastructure technology.

Obviously, these are not cheap solutions, being designed for big retailers and other enterprise-level businesses. Other solutions can be found through IBM, Microsoft, ConnecTerra, GlobeRanger, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, TIBCO Software and others.

This is still an incredibly new market, so be prepared to see a lot of shakeout in terms of feature availability and acquisitions. According to Forrester, middleware platforms are going to need to add many additional capabilities to be of more value to customers.

Also, look to CompTIA for an RFID-related certification. In late November, the organization announced that it was working with AIM Global, The Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility, to develop a vendor-neutral, multidimensional certification program for RFID technology.

Emily Hollis is managing editor for Certification Magazine. She can be reached at ehollis@certmag.com.

 

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