Oct 01, 2007Mary Catherine O'Connor
There's nothing fun about deploying an RFID system based on EPC Gen 2 technology. It can take weeks—even months—and a lot of trial and error before you find the best way to set up and install your hardware, configure the settings on even standardized RFID interrogators, encode and apply tags, and integrate the RFID system into your existing business processes.
Now there's a better way. While we won't go as far as calling it a strategic video game, RFID network simulation software does let you create a virtual manufacturing facility, warehouse or distribution center, then design and build an RFID infrastructure in it. You can develop and test various business processes, such as how and where tags will be read and how the collected data will be integrated into existing applications. (Simulation software won't tell you where to place tags on products or how to address sources of RF interference inside your facility, but there's RF signal analysis software to do that job.) The software can even be used before you decide which hardware to buy.
Some middleware providers, such as BEA Systems, iAnywhere and GlobeRanger, offer simulators that are integrated into their products, used to manage RFID hardware. Companies that have used simulation software say it saves time and money.
Daisy Brand, a Texas-based manufacturer of sour cream products, uses the iMotion Visual Device Emulator, simulation software built into GlobeRanger's middleware, to test workflows without interrupting warehouse operations. The simulation software also allows Daisy Brand to test changes to its RFID equipment, such as reader configurations, without interrupting live dock operations.
"We use the simulation software to test various workflows to see if things would work or not in the production environment," says Kevin Brown, director of information systems for Daisy Brand. "What happens, for example, if someone put the wrong pallet on the wrong truck? It's the abnormal things that catch you off guard. We went through some of those scenarios using the simulation software, because it's hard to go on the floor and simulate something like that. You would need to eat up two dock doors, two trucks, etc."
Other companies and organizations offer standalone RFID testing and development software. Rifidi, from RFID consultancy Pramari, is a free open-source tool that uses virtual tags and readers—you select the frequency and air-interface protocol for the tags and readers, the reader antenna quantity and configuration, and all of the readers' configurable settings—to build and test RFID applications. Once configured, the software generates various tagging scenarios and workflows in 3D.
Pramari is collaborating with the University of Arkansas' RFID Research Center to create canned workflows in warehouse settings that can be used to simulate and test systems. End users will be able to select from preset lists of business rules for processes, such as receiving tagged cases and pallets, and exception handling. They'll be able to experiment with different hardware configurations and see how the collected data can be passed on to warehouse management system software. Pramari plans to follow this up with similar offerings in health care, manufacturing and other industries.
There's even simulation software for early adopters who have deployed RFID systems and now want to work with their partners to track goods through the global supply chain using EPCglobal network standards. Researchers at the Auto-ID Labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich/University St. Gallen in Switzerland have developed free open-source simulation platforms, written in the .NET and Java languages, respectively. These tools—the labs refer to them as prototyping software—let companies experiment with key EPCglobal standards, such as Application Level Events and protocols for linking readers to middleware, to understand how they work together.
The labs believe the prototyping software also could be a valuable learning tool for end users, systems integrators and application developers who are new to RFID. That's because they provide a tutorial on how EPC systems work, as well as the main specifications of the major EPC Gen 2 hardware and software standards.
In the future, says John Williams, director of the MIT Auto-ID Lab, the role of simulation software will expand from something end users employ to design and test their own RFID systems to something supply-chain partners use in collaboration. It will be important in building the EPCglobal network, where queries about individual EPCs will need to be vetted and processed through an EPC Information Service, which companies will use to manage all their EPC data.