A Vintage RFID Application

By Bob Violino

An RFID-enabled wine cellar at an upscale Mexican hotel tracks the location of bottles that sell for as much as $2,000.

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A hotel in Mexico City that has more than $1 million worth of wine in its cellar was having trouble keeping tabs on bottles that sold for as much as $2,000. Some were stolen; others were just misplaced. The hotel was working on another project

with an RFID systems integrator called RSI ID Technologies when RSI suggested that RFID might be the solution.

Focusing on the most expensive vintages, RSI retrofitted wine racks with 13.56 MHz RFID readers and put a pressure-sensitive label with an transponder on the bottom of each bottle. The transponder’s serial number was entered into RSI’s Flexolution software, a Web-based system that also recorded the rack location of each bottle.

Once a tagged wine bottle is placed in the rack, the RFID reader continually reads the tag and verifies that the bottle is still in its assigned location. When a guest orders a high-priced bottle from the wine list, a restaurant manager can log into the Flexolution application and confirm that the bottle is in stock.

Then, instead of having to search through the cellar for the right bottle, an employee can be sent to the precise spot to retrieve it. As soon as the bottle is removed from the rack, the reader no longer senses the tag. A signal is sent to the computer, and the wine inventory is updated automatically. Before the wine is served, the pressure-sensitive RFID label is removed, which destroys the transponder. This prevents a would-be wine thief from switching labels and putting a $60 bottle of wine in a $2,000 bottle’s rack location.

The project is still in the pilot phase, but when it moves to full rollout later this year, the hotel will install a smart card access-control system at the door of the cellar to identify who enters. An integrated camera surveillance system will photograph anyone who takes a bottle from its assigned position. The photo will be uploaded to the Web, so a manager can see who removed which bottles.

The Mexico City hotel will be able to use the RFID system to manage the wine inventory not only in its cellar, but also in each of its five restaurants. Each time a bottle is sold, inventory can be updated in real time. The software can also generate replenishment orders automatically when inventory of a particular vintage falls below a certain number of bottles.

“The software can be used for tracking expensive pharmaceutical drugs and other products,” says RSI CEO Wolf Bielas. “But right now it’s the hospitality industry that’s most excited about it.”

The technology doesn’t come cheap. A tag costs about $1, and the reader to track it is about $50. But RSI plans to design a new antenna system that would lower the reader cost to $20 per location in the wine rack, and tag prices could drop to 60 cents if a hotel buys them in volume. “For the hotel in Mexico City, we calculated an ROI at $80 per rack location,” based on the reduction in theft and improved inventory management, says Bielas. “But obviously, if more hotels and restaurants deploy the system, we can bring the cost of the hardware down.”