RFID Help From The Outside - InformationWeek

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3/24/2005
04:40 PM
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RFID Help From The Outside

Small and midsize companies are turning to systems integrators and consultants to help them design, test, and implement RFID initiatives

When Bradshaw International Inc. asked several software vendors to help it come up with a plan for its radio-frequency identification project, the advice was this: Rip out the existing IT infrastructure and start over. But Bradshaw refused. So the midsize importer of cookware turned to systems integrators with RFID expertise and knowledge for a more palatable plan.

Tanimura & Antle sees its RFID initiative as a chance to test a new technology with Wal-Mart, VP Casas says.

Tanimura & Antle sees its RFID initiative as a chance to test a new technology with Wal-Mart, VP Casas says.

Photo by Kelli Baxendale
Many businesses, particularly small and midsize companies that don't have extensive IT teams or well-padded IT budgets, need systems integrators and consultants to help them map out business cases, manage projects, and test implementations to eliminate interference with other technologies in their supply chains. More companies are turning to specialists that have the expertise and resources that enable them to keep abreast of a quickly evolving technology. Despite Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s and other retail chains' aggressive positions on using the technology, passive RFID, which relies on batteryless chips and readers to power them, is still a relatively new semiconductor technology that few technicians and executives have expertise in.

Granted, there aren't many small and midsize businesses that are using or testing RFID yet. In a study conducted earlier this year by InformationWeek Research, only 12% of the small and midsize companies that responded use RFID, and only 22% are pilot testing. The rest--66%--aren't using or planning to use RFID.

But Wal-Mart and other retailers are asking more and more suppliers to step up; by January, Wal-Mart will require the next wave of suppliers to begin shipping RFID-tagged cases and pallets.

A closer look at InformationWeek's survey indicates that small and midsize businesses could use some RFID help. Of those responding, 74% said it was difficult to select a primary RFID hardware vendor, and 65% said it was difficult to select a software vendor. Choosing a third-party service provider to help wade through an RFID implementation is even trickier: 82% of small and midsize vendors responding said choosing a services provider is difficult.

For Bradshaw, finding a services partner was critical, no matter how difficult. "Software companies weren't willing to work around our existing systems," says Brian Foster, IT manager at Bradshaw, whose imports from China are sold under the Good Cook brand to Albertsons, Bed Bath and Beyond, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target, and others. "We wanted to try and modify the system we built in-house without putting other software in place."

Mobilexe Inc., a 2-1/2-year-old systems integrator with 10 employees, got the job in August because its CEO, Jeffrey Kurschner, agreed to spend long hours with Bradshaw's IT department to make the necessary modifications to Bradshaw's custom and commercial software so it would work with RFID, rather than pulling it all out and staring anew. Bradshaw built and runs its own warehouse-management system, which is integrated with an enterprise-resource-planning platform from Prophet 21 Inc. Data is stored in a Microsoft SQL Server database. Crystal Reports is used for analytics.

Bradshaw's five-person IT team, with the help of two Mobilexe consultants, was able to complete the project in four months.

Mobilexe helped Bradshaw connect the Prophet 21 ERP platform and the homegrown warehouse-management system to a Printronix Inc. SL5304 printer to automate the RFID tag-printing process. Mobilexe also built a conveyer system that contains fixed SAMSys Technologies Inc. RFID readers, which scan tagged cases and collect data detailing the cases' content. Automatic switches can stop the conveyer if an unreadable tag is detected. The data from the readers is fed into the warehouse-management system, which checks it against purchase orders. The collected data is stored in a Microsoft SQL Server and eventually will be transmitted to Retail Link, Wal-Mart's Web-based software that lets the retailer's buyers and some 30,000 suppliers check inventory and sales, and reports on when and where RFID tags are read.

Integration among RFID systems, warehouse-management systems, and ERP apps is perhaps the most difficult aspect of RFID implementations, though such integration can yield greater supply-chain visibility and other benefits. Systems integrators are well prepared to help. This will determine the winners and the losers, Gartner analyst Jeff Woods says. "Software integration is more complex than a slap-and-ship approach, and this is where companies can benefit from a systems integrator," he says. "Companies can integrate invoice processes with ERP systems and create new procedures around in-store merchandising management."

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