Arkansas RFID Research Center Moving to Auburn University

The center, while continuing its research relationship with the University of Arkansas, will expand into NFC, active RFID and other wireless technologies, and will benefit from partnerships with Auburn's research hubs.
Published: May 1, 2014

The RFID Research Center, currently part of the University of Arkansas, is moving to an Alabama site near Auburn University, with which it will now be affiliated. The center’s Arkansas Radio Compliance (ARC) laboratory has offered certification and testing for ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags since 2010 (see Arkansas Radio Compliance Center Aims to Avert Clashing Requirements), and both the RFID Research Center and the ARC lab are now expected to grow exponentially, according to Bill Hardgrave, a dean and Wells Fargo professor at Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. The RFID Research Center will continue its research relationship with the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business, the college’s department of supply chain management and the university’s Center for Advanced Spatial Technology. However, it will now also work closely with multiple groups at Auburn that will allow it to expand far beyond item-level RFID tagging for apparel and other retail applications.

The move will also bring the RFID Research Center back under the leadership of Hardgrave, who founded the center in 2005 (see University Opens RFID Research Center) and acted as its director. In 2010, he left the University of Arkansas and the RFID Research Center to serve as the dean of Auburn’s business college (see Bill Hardgrave to Leave RFID Research Center).

John Mason

The RFID Research Center has provided a laboratory environment for the testing of EPC UHF RFID technology for use in the retail supply chain. Since its founding, the center has grown in size and scope, and has acquired multiple sponsors. Two years ago, it moved to a new facility twice the size (see University of Arkansas’ New RFID Research Center Parallels Growth of RFID Industry).

In early 2014, Hardgrave approached John Mason, Auburn University’s VP for research and central administration, to discuss the RFID Research Center, Mason recalls. The two, together with the University of Arkansas, then began developing a plan for the center’s relocation. Historically, the center has worked closely with the school’s Walton College of Business, but at Auburn, Mason says, it will now have the opportunity to work with departments focused on other areas as well, such as engineering. While at the University of Arkansas, the center has been part of Walton College’s supply chain department, so its researchers have worked with other centers and units as a part of the business college. “At Auburn, we’re a standalone institute, so we can engage directly with each of the different academic units and colleges within the university,” explains Justin Patton, the RFID Research Center’s director. “We essentially become a tool for all the different colleges to use equally.”

Auburn University houses six research hubs, half of which may be able to contribute to, and share projects with, the RFID Research Center. One hub focuses on cybersecurity, another on health sciences, including food safety, and a third is dedicated to transportation and logistics related to moving individuals and goods for commercial and government sectors.

“The RFID Research Center clearly intersects with these three strategic areas,” Mason states. For example, he says, cybersecurity is part of the school’s wireless engineering program, and its faculty and students could thus investigate issues related to the security of data communicated wirelessly. The health-sciences hub can help the center expand into developing and testing solutions related to the tracking of food, as well as the conditions related to that food, while the transportation and logistics hub can enable expansion into a variety of supply chain solutions using RFID technology. Mason says he expects the center to also work with the college’s agriculture and forestry departments. The goal, he explains, will be to engage undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members to not only test technology, but also develop intellectual property, obtain patents and potentially generate growth in the RFID market with new companies and products.

“By having the lab here, I’m hoping it will serve as a catalyst for new ideas,” Mason says, as well as create additional jobs involving the marketing and sale of new products.

Bill Hardgrave

During its tenure at the University of Arkansas, Hardgrave says, the center “did a great job of focusing on early pilots,” while RFID technology was in the earliest stages of being implemented by many retailers and brands. Until now, he notes, the lab has been narrowly focused on passive UHF RFID for the item-level tracking of apparel and other retail goods. “Now we can broaden that approach,” he says, by drawing from the Auburn University hubs.

Hardgrave predicts that the center’s researchers will also work with NFC and active RFID tags, Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons and drones, though exactly how these technologies might become part of the lab’s projects has yet to be determined.

However, he stresses, the center’s ARC lab will continue its traditional services of providing certification for EPC UHF passive RFID tags developed by RFID vendors or being used by companies in the retail industry. What’s more, the center will continue to include its simulated retail environment for the testing of RFID solutions for item-level tracking.

The timing for the relocation, Hardgrave says, resulted from the uptick in RFID technology deployment, combined with Auburn’s ability to expand how RFID—and potentially other wireless technologies—could be developed and tested. He adds that the center’s current sponsors, including Tyco, Avery Dennison, Motorola Solutions, Smartrac and Zebra Technologies, are excited about the move and the potential expansion it will provide.

“We’re going to keep our focus on RFID,” Hardgrave reports, “but we will go beyond it,” to other wireless technologies. Ultimately, he adds, the lab could change its name to better represent the work being done there.

Justin Patton

The center’s staff and equipment will be moved to its new site, a converted 13,000-square-foot former supermarket located a few miles from the heart of Auburn University’s campus, on May 16. The new facility, expected to be fully open by this fall, will be established in two phases, with test equipment for certifications slated to be installed by June 15 and the simulated store areas scheduled to be built by Aug. 15.

The new RFID Research Center will include a simulated factory, warehouse and distribution center, along with various retail, grocery and convenience store formats—including mall apparel and high-end fashion boutiques. The simulated store environments can be expected to grow as well, Hardgrave says. “You won’t see major differences right away,” he notes, but the center does intend to include more simulations, such as a typical store not only in the present, but one approximating a store five years from now, with the change of layout that might be expected once full inventory visibility is in place.

Hardgrave also expects the center to be active in food-safety and food-quality technology research. “I’m very excited about what it can do for the RFID industry when you start putting things together,” he states, including engineering, food safety, logistics and using a variety of wireless technologies to develop new solutions.

Many of the center’s staff members in Arkansas, including Patton, are expected to relocate to the new location in Auburn.