What’s involved in choosing an RFID solution that will work for your retail business?
RFID in retail is a no brainer. And it’s easy enough to implement, although it’s not quite as straight forward as buying say a car. You can’t wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to go out and buy RFID – it’s made up a number of components including tags, readers and software all with their own specialist applications. You don’t need to be a tech whiz to make sense of it all, but choosing an RFID solution that will work for your business does involve a level of research, testing and negotiation with a number of solution specialists.
Solution providers have cottoned onto this so, to make things easier for retailers, are beginning to package together the various RFID elements removing some of the work involved in selection. But, this isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. Each company has their own needs and requirements when it comes to RFID. And in the competitive world of retail, you may not want an identical solution to Joe retailer down the road. Thankfully, with the EPC standard retailers have the flexibility of being able to work with multiple partners on RFID – and still ensure their systems will work together.
So, when you embark down the road of RFID selection, you want to begin with an understanding of the basics. RFID is essentially a system to identify objects remotely using radio waves. Tags are attached to all the items you want to recognise, the reader emits energy, the tag responds telling the reader what it is, the reader converts this information into ones and zeroes, which pass onto your enterprise software, retailers receive the data and everyone’s happy.
Now let’s talk tags, readers and software.
The tag is the most critical part of any RFID project. If your tags aren’t right the whole project can fall over. Considering the number of units an apparel business would churn through each year – hardware is replaceable, software can be updated or redeveloped – but how would your business cope if you had to deal with the problem of millions of unreadable tags? To avoid this start with tags first and find solution partners well versed in the proven standard – EPC.
The tag is made up of a chip and an antenna, known together as the inlay. The chip contains just enough memory to hold the product number so it can be recognised by the reader. Tags can be active or passive, soft or hard (there’s an inappropriate joke in there somewhere). An active tag will broadcast a signal whereas a passive tag has no power source and can only reflect energy from the reader. Passive tags are typically what you will see in apparel retail as they are cheaper and fit for purpose in a store environment. Owing to their price and range, you may consider active tags for high value goods and items that need to be scanned over greater areas (like your supply chain).
Soft tags tend to be integrated into existing packaging or labelling formats – like an apparel swing tag. As well as being cheaper, they are less invasive to the product or customer and are disposable. While they can carry paper batteries for power assistance they tend to have a shorter read range and smaller chip capacity than their ‘harder cousins’.
Hard tags are recyclable, but bulkier, as they have to carry their own power source. As they’re reusable, re-assigning the ID to different products needs to be managed through a database on each cycle.
Readers provide the connection between the tag data and the software. It has an antenna to send and receive signals to and from the tags, meaning in addition to being able to read tags they can also write information onto the tags. Readers can be selected fairly late in the process and what type of reader you choose will depend on what, where and why you’re using RFID.
There are two main types of readers, fixed and mobile:
- Fixed readers are, funnily enough, fixed in a position within the store and read any tags that come into their read zone. They don’t require manual intervention so are useful for any task requiring a more automated approach. Typically they’re used for shelf monitoring and security applications. Fixed readers also include portals which are like a gateway that detects assets moving through.
- Mobile readers include the portable handhelds used for day to day retail store operations. They require a user to locate and read the tag and are particularly useful in managing inventory. While I personally feel they deserve their own category, robots also fall under the mobile reader banner. There’s been talk of drones and flying robots to manage inventory. But Tesco F&F has actually made this a reality and is trialling robots to conduct stock takes in stores. Piloted by engineers, the robots move through the stores scanning as they go, taking the more monotonous tasks away from the human staff and leaving them free to serve customers.
Software turns the bits received over radio waves into actionable information that can drive business processes. The RFID software category is vast, ranging from complete solutions that manage tag encoding, reading and applications, to tools that help computers recognise RFID data so companies can create their own systems. Therefore, the first step in selecting RFID software is deciding what you want the software to do for you, and how much customisation, integration and development you want to do for yourself.
There are components to software; the middleware, applications and integration.
Middleware is the RFID specific software that enables your equipment. This is vital for any RFID installation to monitor and manage the hardware, filter the ‘raw’ tag reads and manage the flow of data into the application software. Applications, including in-store stock management, asset management and asset control, are the tools that enable staff to respond to data insights provided by RFID reads – for example, providing out of stock alerts which could then put into action processes like stock replenishment. Beyond the shopfloor the RFID system needs to be integrated into a user’s existing MIS/ERP system to ensure the RFID data is fully synchronised with your company’s master data.
But ultimately, software development should be all about creating actionable management information based on accurate and timely read-event data to help your staff and customers.
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- Andy Robson is Supply Chain Solutions manager at GS1 UK – a community of more than 28,000 members working in retail, food service, healthcare and more. As one of 111 independent, not-for-profit GS1 organisations across 150 countries worldwide, GS1 helps everyone involved in making, moving and trading goods to automate and standardise their supply chain processes using the common language of business. Find out more here.