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Sun Puts RFID to the Test

Computer hardware and software maker Sun Microsystems will open a test center that lets Wal-Mart suppliers appraise RFID solutions.
By Bob Violino
Nov 18, 2003Earlier this year, when retailing behemoth Wal-Mart announced it would require its top 100 suppliers to embrace RFID by January 2005, it sent a ripple—some might say a tidal wave—throughout the supply chain. Most companies looking to deploy RFID technology quickly saw that evaluating and implementing RFID devices and systems would pose many technical and practical hurdles.
Julie Sarbacker

Enter Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems. In December, the computer hardware and software maker will open an RFID test center in Dallas, Texas. The facility will allow Wal-Mart suppliers to assess RFID solutions and systems so they can ensure compliance with Wal-Mart's technological requirements, which center on identifying, tracking and tracing cases and pallets using RFID tags that carry Electronic Product Codes (EPCs).

Although the retailer met with its top suppliers in early November to provide details on what they will need to do (see Wal-Mart Lays Out RFID Roadmap), many questions remain unanswered. "A lot of companies have indicated that they need to learn more about the requirements and build cost-effective systems," says Julie Sarbaker, director of the auto-ID business unit for Sun Microsystems. "They understand that it is essential to get things right, but they do not have the technical expertise or resources to tackle the task internally."

Sun, which offers RFID middleware based on its open Java Enterprise System and is developing auto-ID products, hopes to cater to tier one suppliers as well as others that need to ramp up RFID capabilities. Its RFID test center will offer consulting expertise and run simulations for actual systems. To ratchet up its technical expertise, Sun is working with several RFID equipment suppliers, including Matrics, Tyco and Applied Wireless Identification Group (AWID). It also has Wal-Mart's full cooperation for the project.

Sun's RFID test center will support all of the same types of tags and readers that Wal-Mart requires its suppliers to adopt. Companies submit the tags, readers and other RFID hardware and software they are considering for deployment, and the Sun test center will install and test them and evaluate how well they would function in Wal-Mart facilities. "Companies gain insight into which tags to use and which devices provide the best-read range and penetration range for pallets," says Sean Clark, who helped set up Sun's test center and serves as an auto-ID product architect at Sun. Although prices will vary depending on the nature of the project, Sarbaker estimates that the total fee for most companies will generally fall below $100,000.

Sun appears to be the first to jump into the RFID testing market for the Wal-Mart program, but Sarbaker and Clark expect others to follow. "Companies understand how important this initiative is and that they need help in implementing RFID," says Sarbaker. "We believe that the Sun test center is an ideal way to streamline the process and speed the transition to RFID."

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