BY DAVID WALLACE
Skydivers know the importance of preparation, education and training – and similar lessons are now being taught as companies rush to study, implement and benefit from RFID projects. Leaping in without studying the “how” of radio frequency ID gear and operations can be hazardous. To a casual observer, RFID – like skydiving – may look dangerous. But skilled and experienced pros have the confidence to make it work knowing that precautions have been taken.
Tom Gladden works as a senior IT technician at Continental Corp., a manufacturer of antilock brake systems. People come and go from the company’s Morganton, N.C. offices with laptop computers and several have been stolen out of cars during travel, he says. That sparked an idea to test RFID for asset tracking, reporting a computer’s comings and goings.
“There was interest for applications about goods tracking or lot tracking of finished goods,” he says. “We have a lot of goods going out to different customers and right now a lot of it is done by hand to check what’s going on a particular truck. We wanted a pilot project just to see how tracking would work as they left the building and came back in.”
Gladden began by purchasing equipment and a few hundred tags with readers to be placed near doorways in the buildings. Although some workers have difficulty getting companies to pay for training or education, and related travel costs, he says the prospects of certification from CompTIA made it easier for Continental Corp. to select a course from OTA Training.
“The training could have opened up options like other vendors. But it’s hard to find someone knowledgeable that you can rely on since salesmen will tell you what they have and where they can be applied. Information is fairly limited in RFID and it’s also not propagating like people thought it would.”
Training programs offer important lessons, but the informal exposure to other class participants and companies also opens doors to new ideas. More than just choosing gear or suppliers is at stake. Starting with training can unlock new uses for RFID while teaching the skills needed to implement the technology quickly and cost-effectively.
Understanding how RFID works, then applying that knowledge to your business can simplify decisions on vendors and specific implementations, advises Doug Frost, who is rolling out both local and remote RFID systems at a company that equips inspectors to evaluate damaged homes nationwide for the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
“There are lots of pieces of equipment but there is probably one that’s better than another for each purpose,” he says.
Under a government contract, PaRR Inspections (THIS IS CORRECT/DW) sends thousands of people out on very short notice with computers, cameras and other company-provided gear. Remote centers near disaster areas are staging areas where inspectors get their assignments and equipment in temporary offices. An RFID pilot program was devised to improve asset tracking, speed up deployments and manage equipment better. Another goal is making the inspectors accountable for damaged or lost gear. Last year, Frost’s company spent more than $100,000 buying replacement stylus pens for computers alone, he explains.
“My whole life has revolved around using technology to find a better, cheaper, faster way of doing things. I’ve been in the engineering business for 20 years, so when RFID came out maybe 24 months ago, and I saw the concept, I became interested,” he says.
Before starting a pilot program, Frost chose OTA Training and a course that would prepare him for CompTIA certification. Learning the physics of tags and readers, issues such as placement of antennas and the tags themselves made it easier to pick the best equipment. And the course opened his eyes to specific issues for his project -- because small items such as charging cables and handheld computers can be difficult places to get accurate RFID performance because of electrical interference or external tags that can be removed or easily scratched.
“We’ve had losses of up to 300 computers and power packs and that’s a lot of money. We also get a lot of damaged equipment back,” he says. “So we need to hold the inspectors accountable and reprocess the items in and make repairs – now we can tell who had which unit and assess charges for the repairs.”
Frost has already seen ways that RFID-enabled packages can speed delivery of gear to emergency sites and improve other workflow processes. Instead of each inspector returning to a central depot, he is exploring ways they can use drop-shipments from anywhere thanks to tags that easily identify who has used which items.
While the skydiver makes sure to check a parachute, and back-up safety systems, the same care should be devoted to an RFID education program. Independent, vendor-neutral providers examine differences in equipment, applications and even minor details such as placement of tags and readers can be the difference between a successful RFID rollout and a project that fails to deliver on its promises.
Classroom courses, ‘learn-by-doing mistakes’ or relying on consultants can leave too much to chance. And the growing number of RFID education programs leads people to make choices based on price or location convenience when a more rigorous comparison is vital. Frost says seeing the technology in use was another key aspect of OTA Training’s program.
“A training atmosphere within a facility with a testing lab was very valuable,” he says. “There’s a perception that you just slap a tag on something and you can read it. But the placement, shapes, orientations of tags and types of readers all present a challenge. Unlike a barcode you can’t see an RFID signal. That’s critical to implementing RFID and making it 100 percent successful.”