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Choosing the Right Systems Integrator

There are many companies that will help you with your RFID pilot or deployment, but finding the best one requires matching your needs to the firm's capabilities.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 01, 2005—Brian Foster had a problem. As IT manager for Bradshaw International, a distributor of Good Cook brand and private-label kitchenware to Wal-Mart, Albertsons and many other large retailers, it was his job to ensure that his company could meet Wal-Mart's mandate to put RFID tags on pallets and cases by January 2005. Bradshaw isn't among Wal-Mart's top 100 suppliers and wasn't required to do so, but the company wanted to steal a march on its competitors, show Wal-Mart its interest in embracing RFID and explore how the technology could streamline its own internal operations.

Foster had made up his mind that he did not want to deploy a new software platform to run the RFID tagging system. He wanted to integrate the RFID system with Axiom, the warehouse management system (WMS) that Bradshaw has been using since 1997, before it was commercialized. Foster attended conferences and seminars to meet RFID systems integrators with experience deploying RFID programs.

"The vendors all told me, 'We have RFID in a box,'" Foster says, "but it didn't seem like any of them had a complete solution that would tie into our WMS system." That was a sticking point. If he couldn't find a company willing to work with Bradshaw to integrate the RFID system with Axiom, Foster was willing to proceed without a systems integrator. (For more on working without an integrator, see "Going It Alone".)

Then Foster did an online search for systems integrators with offices near Bradshaw's Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., location and found MobileXe, a six-person firm in Rancho Palos Verdes, just 75 miles away. Foster interviewed Jeffrey Kurschner, CEO of MobileXe, and liked that he had extensive experience integrating RFID and bar code data into enterprise software systems, including those from Oracle and SAP. But Foster knew he had the right company when Kurschner said he was willing to work with Bradshaw's existing IT architecture. "He would learn our business and understand the system we had in place," says Foster

Kurschner and his team set up a tagging system that included a Printronix RFID label printer and a SAMSys reader and worked closely with Bradshaw's programmer to link the system to Axiom, through an SQL server database. As tags on cases are read, they're checked against purchase orders stored in the WMS. No separate middleware is needed, nor will one be needed as Bradshaw scales up its tagging operation.

The system took four months to deploy and cost less than $50,000. Bradshaw is now tagging roughly 2,000 cases of 17 different kitchenware products it ships to Wal-Mart each week. Bradshaw expects to be able to do a better job of meeting demand for its products—especially seasonal items, such as holiday-themed cookie cutters, which have a short selling window—because Wal-Mart is providing information on the movement of the products from its distribution center to the back of stores to the retail floor, through its Retail Link supplier extranet.

For Foster, it paid off to stick to his guns until he found a partner that would integrate RFID data with the Axiom WMS. He saved money on the deployment by not using middleware and now says he has an understanding of the RFID system, since he worked side by side with MobileXe while the integration work was being done.

Whether you're deploying RFID to meet a retailer or government mandate, or to improve efficiencies within your own company, a good systems integrator can provide the technical and/or business expertise you need. But, as Foster learned, finding the right systems integrator isn't always easy.

RFID systems integrators provide a range of services, from simple slap-and-ship solutions to hardware and software selection and/or installation, product testing, integration of RFID data into enterprise software and warehouse management systems, project management and business case development. But not every systems integrator offers all of these services. Some have strengths in a specific area, such as data integration or hardware testing, while others have deep experience in vertical industries, such as commercial aviation or healthcare.

The ideal systems integrator would help you define the business case for deploying RFID, reengineer business processes, install the readers, advise on how to tag products or assets, and integrate the data from the RFID system to support the new business processes. Today, there are very few systems integrators that do it all. The key to picking the right systems integrator lies in matching your current and future needs with the systems integrator's skills and capabilities. With that in mind, we offer an overview of the RFID systems integrator landscape, based on the types of Electronic Product Code deployments companies are currently undertaking.
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