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RFID Centers Offer a Chance to Try Before You Buy

There are numerous laboratories and test centers to serve end users that want to learn about RFID without purchasing their own equipment. Users may get their own hands-on lab time or contract with the facility to provide testing or other services. This article provides an overview of the types of facilities and services.
Jan 22, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

January 22, 2008—Laboratories and research facilities played a large role in developing and commercializing some of the leading RFID technologies used today, and now are playing an important role in helping users implement RFID within their organizations. RFID end users can take advantage of a variety of labs and demonstration centers to get hands-on experience with RFID, test different tags on their products, simulate different usage conditions to evaluate readers, and to contract with the lab operator for more specific or sophisticated services.

RFID Update has identified more than 30 RFID laboratories and test centers around the world that are available to end users. Nearly all enable users to test their products or shipment packaging to evaluate how different tags and readers perform, or offer this testing as a service. EPCglobal Gen2 tag and reader testing capabilities are widely available, but labs and test centers also support a full range of RFID protocols and frequencies. Some facilities also have resources for testing RFID with various sensors, and for evaluating alternative wireless technologies.

"As RFID use and technologies continue to grow, people are going to have to do a huge amount of testing," Brian McGrane, RFID business development manager for the Sun Microsystems Advanced Product Testing Lab in Longmont, Colorado, told RFID Update. Sun formerly operated an RFID lab in Dallas, but consolidated it into the Longmont facility, which is also used for testing other wireless technologies and is equipped with an extensive variety of test equipment.

Facility operators usually fall into one of three categories: colleges and universities; industry groups or associations; or vendors. These categories aren't always mutually exclusive, because some facilities are managed by a collaboration among universities, associations, or vendors. Most RFID vendors can demonstrate systems at their facilities, but several make lab or testing facilities open for prospects and customers to use and evaluate equipment themselves. A few RFID end users have even opened their testing facilities to other companies, or jointly manage shared-use centers.

Terms of use and fees vary widely. Many facilities offer standard services at fixed prices. For example, a manufacturer that needs to provide RFID tags on its shipments to satisfy a customer request could contract a test facility to determine which RFID tag and reader combinations provide the best performance. Other labs and test centers make their facilities available and charge based on the time used. Vendor-operated labs in particular may provide some access and services for free in hopes of winning customers, or may offer facilities or services for a fee outside of any additional project work. University-based facilities sometimes receive grants for RFID research or may be contracted by commercial entities to perform specific testing or services.

"When there was the early push for RFID pallet tagging, there was a lot of need for tag testing, and a lot of labs started popping up. People thought they could make money from tag testing services, but that isn't always enough to keep the doors open," Dr. Bill Hardgrave of the University of Arkansas RFID Research Center told RFID Update. "Many of these facilities either closed or morphed to provide more services or consulting."

The RFID Research Center at Arkansas is considered one of the premier RFID facilities that is open to end users. It averages 1,000 annual visitors and is housed within an actually factory near the university campus, and includes separate areas to simulate manufacturing, warehouse, and retail store conditions within its 10,000 square feet. "We set up a real-life playground for RFID," said Hardgrave. "We are truly a neutral, unbiased lab where users can see how various things perform. We don't offer sales or consulting."

The center is an accredited EPCglobal Performance Test Center. The designation means that standards organization EPCglobal has certified the facility to provide unbiased information and offer the competence to test products for conformance with Gen2 and other EPCglobal RFID standards. There are a handful of EPCglobal-accredited facilities around the world, but the organization only makes the complete list available to its subscribers.

EPCglobal itself also operates or sponsors several RFID centers. The EPC system and technology were born out of university-based research and development at MIT. When the technology was ready to be commercialized, EPCglobal took over the process, while MIT and other universities remained involved in RFID research. Now there are seven university-associated Auto-ID Labs that conduct RFID research, with the EPCglobal Board of Governors serving as the primary advisor.

Several non EPCglobal-affiliated universities also offer RFID facilities and services.

In general, RFID labs proliferated over the last few years, on college campuses and elsewhere. In Part II of this series RFID Update will provide profiles and contact information for more than 30 RFID labs and test centers all over the world.
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