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University Opens RFID Research Center

With funding from major corporations, including J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart, the University of Arkansas aims to do primary research that will support the adoption of RFID technologies.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 13, 2005The University of Arkansas formally opened a new RFID research center on June 10. The aim of the facility is to do primary research in three areas: technology deployment, data analytics and business cases for deploying RFID.

"We want to understand how the technology works, how to deploy it in the field and how to get high read rates," says Bill Hardgrave, director of the RFID Research Center and executive director of the Information Technology Research Institute at the university's Sam M. Walton College of Business in Fayetteville, where the new facility is located. "We want to focus on data analytics because RFID achieves nothing without the ability to capture, filter and analyze data. And we want to study the business case because the data is of little value unless it can be used to improve business processes."

Some 300 people attended the opening of the RFID Research Center

The RFID facility is supported by three other research centers located within the Sam M. Walton College of Business: the Information Technology Research Center, the Center for Retailing Excellence and the Supply Chain Management Research Center. It has received about $2 million of funding from companies, including ACNielsen, Deloitte, E. & J. Gallo Winery, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart.

The RFID center includes a 7,800-square-foot "dirty lab" in part of a warehouse owned by Hanna's Candle Co., in the Fayetteville Industrial Park. The lab is equipped with a conveyor loop that can move boxes at 600 feet per minute, a dock door, warehouse racks, shelving similar to that used in the storeroom of a retail store and swinging doors like those located between the back room and the retail floor. This gives the center the ability to study read rates and other deployment issues at each point in the retail supply chain.

The RFID lab is the most advanced of any owned by a university and rivals some of the commercial labs set up by ADT Tyco, International Paper and Sun Microsystems. The University of Arkansas facility will be used for RFID courses attended by students from the Walton College of Business and the university's engineering department. Hardgrave says the aim is to educate students about real-world RFID issues so they can bring to the businesses that hire them an understanding of what RFID can and can't do.

The center will also compete with the commercial labs to some degree. Doyle Z. Williams, dean of the Walton College of Business, says companies can bring their products to the facility so that students and staff can determine the right tags to use and the optimal placement of those tags on the products, then test the read rates on the conveyor, at the dock door and so on. "This will be of value to the next 200 to 600 Wal-Mart suppliers," Williams says. "We will do this work for a very reasonable price."

A number of technology companies are supporting the lab by donating hardware, software and services. Among those involved are ConnecTerra, Intel, Microsoft, OATSystems, Symbol Technologies and Zebra Technologies.

The research center grew out of a research grant that Wal-Mart provided to support research being done by Hardgrave, who has been working closely with Wal-Mart's deployment team to quantify the benefits RFID is bringing the retailer (see School Studies RFID's Effect on Wal-Mart).

Wal-Mart already has its own lab. Kerry Pauling, VP of information systems at Wal-Mart, speaking to an audience of about 300 that gathered for the opening of the facility, explained that the biggest benefit the retailer expects to get is a flow of students emerging from academia with an understanding of RFID. "Students will get real-life experience and understand what the technology can do and can't do," he says. "They will take that knowledge with them as they move into business. That's what I'm excited about."

According to Kent Kushar, chief information officer at E. & J. Gallo Winery, RFID is a complex technology to deploy, and his firm feels the best solutions come through collaboration with other companies. "We're here because we want to extend our knowledge of RFID and how we use it, and better align the technology with our business requirements," he explains. "Participating in the research also allows us the opportunity to shape the technology and how it is talked about and received in the marketplace."

Christopher Hook, leader of RF solutions at Deloitte, notes that there is still a great deal of uncertainty in the market over read rates, tag quality, standards and other issues. "Uncertainty begets discovery, and discovery is facilitated by applied research," he reports. "That is the value of this research center—to drive applied research for the entire RFID community."
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