U.K. Auto-ID Center Focuses on Small, Midsize Firms

By Rhea Wessel

The facility re-creates a small town to demonstrate how RFID works in real life, and to instill visitors with new ideas about how to profit from the technology.


The European Centre of Excellence for Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC UK), located in Halifax, England, is completing the installation of a 1,000-square-meter (10,760-square-foot) automatic-ID demonstration center. In addition, the center is expanding its offering of training courses and consulting to companies.

Opened in November 2007, the facility offers the largest demonstration center for auto-ID technologies in Europe and has already hosted visitors from two dozen countries. These visitors came to learn about the possibilities of auto-ID technologies, including RFID, by attending lectures and touring the demonstration center, which consists of a model of a small town. “Visitors can walk down the street where you or I may live,” explains Ian Smith, the CEO and cofounder of AIDC UK. “They’ll see a hospital, a town hall, a library, a logistics center, an airport, a bank and a recreation area. They can see how the technologies are changing our lives.”

Ian Smith

For instance, visitors can push a dolly containing a parcel bearing an RFID tag with a temperature sensor, then load that package onto a truck. A reader interrogates the tag and sends back location and temperature information that is visible on a screen. The exhibition demonstrates smart shelves that employ RFID to help store owners keep shelves stocked. What’s more, visitors can pass a shopping trolley, or cart, through an RFID portal and instantly read a complete list of its contents on a screen, illustrating a wheel-through checkout process at a supermarket.

Most of the demonstrations tell a story, Smith says. “In the logistics area, you can see goods received, put away, picked, dispatched and delivered, and all the reverse processes for returned items.” And in the travel section, visitors can experience, for instance, RFID-enabled passport control, baggage tracking and mobile phone ticketing. “By showing how the technology works in real life,” he explains, “the center sparks the imagination of small businesses as to how best to use RFID in their own environment. Their knowledge of the possibilities is expanded.”

While RFID plays a large role at the center, Smith says, the facility covers the entire gamut of auto-ID technologies, including bar coding. “If we had just focused on RFID, it would have been short-sighted,” he states, adding, “While an important and rapidly developing technology, RFID may not be the AIDC answer in every case. We want to be sure potential users select the most appropriate technology for their application.”

The AIDC center was launched with a £5 million ($9.9 million) grant from Yorkshire Forward, the development agency for the Yorkshire and Humber regions, with the goal of helping the area’s small and midsize enterprises adopt auto-ID technologies. The funding was used to set up the center and continues to pay for ongoing expenses, such as the contracting of independent experts who visit the companies to help them conduct auto-ID feasibility studies. The center has assisted 100 firms to date, and aims to assist 2,000 more in Yorkshire and Humber within the next two years.

Eventually, Smith says, the AIDC center is intended to become self-reliant. Designed as a hub for services, research and information, the facility will earn money from regional auto-ID centers and companies that will pay membership fees to access its information and services.

In addition to consulting and training courses offered in its 60-seat theater, the AIDC center also hosts an auto-ID lab and is involved in European Union-level research projects. The lab is used for testing new product concepts and performance testing of RFID and 2-D bar-coding hardware.

One research project in which AIDC UK is involved is CASAGRAS (Coordination and Support Action for Global RFID-related Activities and Standardization), part of the E.U. Framework 7 program. In that project, AIDC UK is working with various organizations, including the AIM UK chapter of the auto-ID trade association AIM Global, to develop global standards, regulations and the so-called Internet of Things.

Smith has been involved in auto-ID technologies since 1984, when he served as the founding general secretary of AIM Europe. He helped establish AIM affiliates in 15 European nations.