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The Four Questions

What you must know before you begin an RFID project.
By Ken Traub
May 08, 2016

Many of my consulting clients come to me when they run into trouble in the middle of an RFID project. Often, their software problems could have been avoided, and much time and money saved, if those involved understood the answers to the following questions before they bought a single tag or reader.

Is this a point solution or an enterprise project? A point solution automates a single process, and the RFID data doesn't interact with other business applications. With an enterprise project, RFID data has value to many business processes and, possibly, to trading partners. At first, tracking tools in a plant might seem like a point solution that will be confined to helping factory workers improve productivity. But the RFID data also could help with job scheduling, capital equipment accounting and workflow analysis. If your RFID project has the potential for broader use, plan for that (see Document Your Software Deployment Design).

Should I invent my own encoding scheme for the tag data? The answer is no! Whether you're tracking items within your company or through the supply chain, it's best to use a global industry standard. I've addressed this issue in previous columns (see What's In a Name? The Right Way to Encode RFID Tags for Consumer Products and A New EPC on the Block).

What data should I put on the tag? A passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency RFID tag has user memory that can function as a miniature database. This is useful for some applications, such as tracking airplane parts for maintenance and repair operations. But for most other applications, it's best to encode only a unique identification number onto the tag, and put all the other information into a database, which you can look up using the tag's UID number. That way, you can easily update the information even if you don't have physical access to the tag, and you won't lose any data if the tag fails. There is a little more up-front work to deploy the database and make sure it's always accessible, but the long-term benefits more than outweigh that.

Should I design my own data format for sending RFID reads to my business applications? Again, the answer is no. Use the industry standard Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS), which provides context to tag reads. It not only tells you what tags were read and when, but also where and why. EPCIS is flexible to accommodate your project's information needs, while helping make your data resilient to changing business requirements (see EPCIS for Internal Projects and Supply Chain Visibility).

Understanding these software issues will ensure your RFID implementation can scale and deliver all the benefits possible. Otherwise, you'll be locked into a rigid system in which you can't adapt data to new purposes or upgrade to more advanced hardware down the road.

Ken Traub is the founder of Ken Traub Consulting, a Mass.-based firm providing services to com­panies that rely on advanced software technology to run their businesses. Send your software questions to swsavvy@kentraub.com.
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