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How to Choose Between Fixed and Mobile Interrogators

The decision is not as simple as it might seem. Here are five steps you can follow to make the right choice.
By Samuel Greengard
Jul 30, 2007—Putting an RFID system in place presents numerous challenges, yet few loom as largely as determining how and where to use interrogators (readers) in distribution centers, warehouses or other facilities. Today, thanks to the widespread adoption of wireless local area networks (WLAN) and the introduction of Bluetooth technology, the decision-making process is increasingly complex. Organizations can choose between traditional fixed interrogators, handheld interrogators and newer mobile readers designed to mount on a forklift or other vehicle, or even reside on an employee's body.

Fixed readers are built for large-scale deployments at fixed locations and have the capability to read high volumes of tags. They detect any tagged object that passes near them—typically within a range of 10 to 20 feet for passive tags and up to 300 feet for active tags. Fixed readers require connection via cables to external antennas, a power source and a middleware system that will manage the RFID read data.

Handheld interrogators, which are battery-powered, provide greater latitude over where, when and how they can be used. But a user needs to trigger a handheld device, and the read zone is determined by where it is aimed. Handheld interrogators can take different forms and include an array of features and functionality. Some are handheld computers with an interrogator that is inserted into a PCMCIA card; they are effective for reading tags on a few objects. Others are gun-like devices that feature fully integrated RFID antennas and far more powerful read capabilities. Still other more powerful handheld readers include bar-code scanning and provide a touchscreen display. In the early stages of an RFID implementation, handheld interrogators often serve as a bridge between the worlds of bar code and RFID.

Mobile interrogators, the newest reader form factor, offer the best of both worlds. They combine the automated (non-user driven) data-capture focus of fixed readers with some of the flexibility and capabilities of handheld readers. They feature integrated antennas, are often powered by batteries and can transmit information wirelessly. They are designed to attach to any mobile vehicle—including forklifts and clamp trucks—automatically reading any tagged item that these vehicles transport. Some even integrate motion or proximity sensors to automatically shut down the unit and conserve power when not in use.

In addition, their minimal footprint and mobility make these readers valuable for all sorts of locations where traditional cabled, fixed portals aren't practical. They're able to provide visibility into the movement of RFID-tagged items well beyond traditional entry and exit points. Mobile readers boost flexibility but demand a more robust infrastructure and a greater understanding of business processes. Nevertheless, some manufacturers and distributors rely on them to manage inventory more efficiently, boost productivity and trim costs.

Mobile readers are typically high-end systems such as Motorola's RD 5000 system—which includes a built-in antenna, WLAN and Bluetooth connectivity—and Intermec's IV7 vehicle-mounted interrogators, designed for forklift trucks. Motorola has demonstrated how its unit can be mounted on carts—and even Segway scooters—for taking inventory, and vehicle-mounted devices are designed for heavy industrial use.

So how do you determine whether to deploy fixed, handheld or mobile interrogators—or even all three? It's not a simple decision. Among the factors that must be weighed are the environments in which the tags will be read and the specific applications involved. The following five steps can help you make the right decision and build an effective RFID reader network.
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