SML Opens Retail Ideation Space for Item-Level RFID

The new center, located in Plano, Texas, is the first of three such sites the company is launching to place RFID technology into the hands of potential users, as well as to host innovation sessions between users and technology providers.
Published: June 18, 2019

RFID technology company SML RFID has opened a Retail Ideation Space (RIS) at its RFID Solutions headquarters in Plano, Texas, to provide potential RFID technology users with a place to view, test and create tailored RFID solutions for item-level inventory tracking. The new center signals an opportunity for retailers and brands to begin learning how RFID works in a real-world environment, says Dean Frew, SML’s CTO and senior VP of RFID solutions.

The RIS’s grand opening, held last week, represents the culmination of approximately nine months of planning, Frew says. “The primary goal for SML,” he states, “is to show companies how easy it is to deploy and use RFID for inventory management, as well as helping them tailor a solution that works for them.”

The 9,000-square-foot space, adjacent to the company’s existing offices, includes a store front, a back room and a distribution center, as well as a labeling area known as the Ideation Studio, for designing custom EPC UHF RFID or non-RFID labels and packaging. Visitors will have access to staff members on site for consultation and design. Technology partners contributing products to the center include Bluebird, Impinj, Microsoft, NXP Semiconductors and Zebra Technologies.

The store front includes approximately 3,000 items, each tagged with an SML tag, including garments and stacked, shelved goods, which can be read via handheld RFID readers, as well as portal and overhead readers. The data is captured, managed and displayed using Microsoft Cloud, hosted on SML’s Clarity software platform. SML can demonstrate the use of handheld readers in the store, and a full inventory count of the sample store can be completed within about five minutes. The firm also demonstrates an RFID-reading robot from Keonn Technologies that could automatically capture tag reads outside of business hours.

The center’s back room features shelved and boxed goods, with demonstrations related to capturing tag reads via handheld devices as goods are received. The distribution center allows demonstrations of applications for the reading of tagged goods in boxes using a tunnel reader as products are shipped to stores. The company also invites visitors to its software factory to work with developers to innovate new solutions specific to a retailer’s or brand’s particular needs.

In addition, SML features several new products at its Packaging & Trim Ideation Studio, including printing and encoding equipment. Its GPAS brand-authentication solution offers QR code functionality so users can view details regarding a product via a 3-D barcode scan with a mobile phone.

SML’s new Print and Encode FlexiPrint RFID printer and encoding solution allows companies to quickly create UHF RFID tags that can be applied to products as they are made, rather than having to wait for tags to be shipped from a third-party service bureau. Often, manufacturers are under pressure to have tags produced and applied according to a tight schedule—perhaps even a matter of days. If tags are being produced in another country (which could happen if, for instance, a manufacturer were located in one South American country while a tag provider was in another), a delay could result—not only in the printing and encoding stages, but in customs.

By using the FlexiPrint machine, companies can save money and improve their lead times, says Daniel Van der Kolk, SML’s senior director of operations. “When they have a product ready, they simply don’t have time to wait for the tags,” he explains. “This takes pressure off the vendor.” SML would still provide the RFID-based unique ID numbers that the machine would then encode on labels for specific products. However, he adds, large orders will still benefit from printing and encoding by the service bureau. “We don’t expect this to replace the service bureau.” Depending on the tag or label size, the machine can print and encode up to 60,000 units a day.

SML also features its new FastTag mini tag printing module, designed for use in stores or DCs with SML’s Clarity software. The system is designed for scenarios in which a product loses its RFID tag or is returned without a tag. Rather than losing track of that item, the device enables a store to restore the product’s digital record by creating a new RFID tag and automatically adding that item to Clarity.

The packaging studio allows companies to strategize, build and test custom labels with or without RFID functionality. For example, brands can test materials and designs that would increase their labels’ sustainability.

The center will enable companies to collaborate with technology providers, SML reports. In fact, Frew says, customers bring ideas to the firm that are then built into products and solutions. In the past, those have included adopting smartphones to link to handheld RFID readers, as well as creating a separate category for top-selling items in Clarity in order to keep a close eye on the movements of specific product lines’ inventory. Seasonal items such as Halloween costumes can be captured in their own category, based on a customer request.

“Customers come up with practical ideas,” Frew states, “and we can take the core technology and create value with a couple of process modifications inside Clarity.” All of that is possible, he notes, through the kind of close engagement with customers that they hope to accomplish at the center.

Many retailers have struggled with RFID in the past, Frew indicates, or have not yet deployed the technology due to the cost or perceived complexity of installing and integrating a system. “Companies that start with inventory management as their primary purpose yield sales uplifts,” he notes, simply because products are available for shoppers, whether in the store or online. SML’s most successful customers start with this premise, Frew says, and can then expand to other applications, such as customer-facing systems (magic mirrors or self-purchasing, for instance).

Several retailers and brands around the world are already using SML-based technology for this purpose, Frew reports. As a matter of fact, he adds, the company sold 1.5 billion RFID tags last year, and 15,000 associates perform store cycle counts on 150 million tags every week, achieving 98 percent accuracy.

As RFID is becoming more commonplace, some companies are taking their second look at the technology after several years. SML expects those customers to find that RFID is easier to deploy and use now, and that it is scalable, offering a return on investment for those that have already deployed the technology.

The greatest challenge for retailers wanting to adopt RFID no longer relates to the technology itself, Frew says. Instead, companies must focus on keeping internal management and stakeholders aligned to adapt their processes to include RFID-based item-level management. For instance, he notes, some companies have moved away from third-party inventory counting. To plan adoptions, the center is intended to allow businesses to strategize how to conduct an RFID deployment.

The RFID use itself is the easy part, Frew says. At least one person attending the grand opening was able to conduct an inventory cycle count in the store with a wine glass in hand, for instance. He claims users can typically be trained to conduct an inventory count using the handheld within only 15 minutes.

SML RFID has been growing as its technology has gained traction in retail and other sectors, Frew says. During the last year, the firm doubled its personnel from 40 to 80. The company plans to open two additional ideation spaces this year in the United Kingdom and in China to further support its retail customers around the globe.

In October 2019, SML plans to host a customer advisory board meeting at the center, to allow SML and its partners to present solutions to first-time customers. In addition, the firm will exhibit at the RFID Journal LIVE! Retail @ RetailX conference, to be held next week in Chicago, where it intends to demonstrate its solutions and products.