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What You Need to Know About RFID Handheld Readers

As part of an ongoing study of item-level tagging in the apparel and footwear industry, the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas has investigated the use of RFID handheld readers. Here's what companies should know to take advantage of these mobile devices.
By Caleb Brantley and Mambwe Mumba
Apr 01, 2008—Recently, the emphasis on item-level tagging in the apparel and footwear industry has accelerated the need for and development of RFID handheld readers. Numerous retailers—including New Balance in the United States, Falabella in Latin America, Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom, the Metro Group's Galeria Kaufhof in Germany, and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo—are piloting or deploying item-level tagging in stores to improve sales and customer service.

RFID handheld readers from top: Motorola MC9090, Intermec IP4 and LXE MX3X.
Employees are using RFID handheld readers to conduct periodic inventory checks of tagged items, which can reduce out-of-stocks. They are also using handheld readers to locate misplaced items on store shelves and help shoppers find items in the right sizes and colors. Maskyelin, an eco-friendly men's clothing store in King of Prussia, Pa., even plans to arm its store-floor sales staff with handheld readers that act as point-of-sale devices for purchasing items without a cash register.

For the past year, the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas has been conducting an ongoing study—sponsored by the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions Association (VICS) and the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP)—to investigate the technical feasibility and return on investment for RFID at the item level. The use of RFID handheld readers is a major part of this investigation.

Since the center began its study, the form and functionality of handhelds has changed and matured. This lab report examines three different RFID handheld readers that the lab used regularly: the Intermec IP4, Motorola MC9090 and LXE MX3X.

Similarities and Differences
All RFID handheld readers have two main components: hardware and software. The hardware comprises a keyboard (all three models come with an optional touch screen), a display (mono in older models, color in all new models), a central processing unit (CPU), memory and a removable power supply. All three handhelds also have a bar-code scanner to facilitate the transition from bar-code to RFID technology. The software consists of an operating system and applications.

The Intermec IP4, Motorola MC9090 and LXE MX3X weigh about 37 ounces, 35 ounces and 38 ounces, respectively. All three handhelds have a rugged design, with bodies made from polycarbonate plastics. This is important because they can withstand being dropped from varying heights—which, we've found, is a very likely occurrence in the work environment. The Intermec and Motorola devices have a pistol-grip design. The LXE reader resembles a flat, wide PDA and is held on both sides of the screen, like a portable game device. The LXE also includes slots that allow it to be snapped onto a vehicle or a stand to double as a mounted mobile reader.
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