Auburn RFID Lab Holds Grand Opening

By Mark Roberti

Some 250 people from RFID end-user companies and technology providers gathered at Auburn University to officially open the lab, which moved from the University of Arkansas.

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The RFID Research Center, founded by Dr. Bill Hardgrave at the University of Arkansas in 2005, announced plans to move to Alabama’s Auburn University a year ago (see Arkansas RFID Research Center Moving to Auburn University). Last week, the newly named RFID Lab officially opened, though it had already been in operation for months. More than 200 individuals from Macy’s, Target, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other major companies were in attendance, along with representatives of RFID solution providers.

The lab is located inside a former supermarket, on the edge of the sprawling Auburn campus. The 13,000-square-foot facility contains a mockup of an apparel retail store, complete with shelves of jeans, a changing room and a point-of-sale counter. There are also areas where students can explore applications of RFID in grocery and convenience stores, as well as warehouse and distribution center environments.

Justin Patton, the RFID Lab’s director, working the sales counter at the lab’s mockup of an apparel retail store

The lab is supported by Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, Raymond J. Harbert College of Business (of which Hardgrave is dean) and College of Human Sciences. The mission of the latter is to apply scientific principles to enhance the quality of life. Students from the College of Human Sciences have helped design the retail store’s layout, and will work on such tasks as improving the customer experience at stores with RFID and other technologies.

Justin Patton, the lab’s director, said the facility has three fundamental roles. The first is research, so it will publish one or two major papers about RFID each year. The second is education. The lab is thus staffed and run by students, who will learn both from the research they undertake and from working with companies that use the lab to understand how RFID can improve their operations.

“The third part is engagement with the business community,” Patton said. “The lab is a bridge between the academic and business communities. It is a way to make the academic research visible to the business community, and at the same time, it’s a way for businesspeople who have real problems to present those to the faculty so they can work on solutions that will move industry forward.”

The three roles can all complement each other, Patton noted, and provided an example: “There are companies that have problems that they are trying to solve. If I can take inventory more frequently with RFID, how frequently should I do it? You can take that kind of a problem and present it to the faculty and have them research it, have students work on it, and publish a paper on it. And it’s something that the company can use right away.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the official opening of Auburn University’s RFID Lab, with Bill Hardgrave (far left) and Justin Patton (far right)

Dave Clark, Amazon‘s senior VP of worldwide operations and customer service (as well as an Auburn alumni), spoke at the opening ceremony. “[The lab] really is a place designed for tinkering, experimenting and inventing, where students, faculty, staff and industry can come together and innovate for operations structures of the future,” he said. “The things you see in the lab are not things that maybe could happen 20 years from now. These are things that could be operational realities for customers immediately. The leadership [at Auburn University] deserves credit for having the foresight and the commitment to dedicate the resources to create a lab like this one.”