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Skills Challenges in RFID Implementation

52RD.com 2006年1月8日 David Sommer            評論:0條 我來說兩句
  Adopting radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is not a matter of if, but when, for most organizations. Some of you may still be waiting for your first exposure to RFID. Others may be involved in pilot deployments or closed-loop implementations. But RFID is coming in 2006 and beyond, and in a big way.

A 2005 survey commissioned by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and conducted by Frost & Sullivan, a global leader in strategic growth consulting, found that just over one-half of more than 500 organizations surveyed in North America had either completed RFID implementations or planned to do so within the next 12 months. This includes companies that are evaluating, pilot testing, implementing, or currently using RFID.

Among specific industry sectors, the most aggressive adoption of RFID is planned in the automotive industry, where 59 percent of companies surveyed said they will deploy the technology over the next 12 months. The consumer goods industry and the transportation and logistics sectors were close behind, at 58 percent each.

The key early market driver for RFID implementation continues to be mandates from the likes of retailing giant Wal-Mart and the United States Department of Defense. As many as 60,000 companies are facing such mandates from their customers and trading partners over the next few years. Retailer and government mandates have pushed many end users into a technology they might not otherwise use until it was more affordable and mature. Many organizations have adopted a “slap-and-ship” approach to RFID implementation simply to meet compliance deadlines.

Figure 1: RFID implementers get information from many sources, according to a recent survey.

Increasingly, however, manufacturing and distribution companies are exploring options for making better use of all that RFID has to offer. They understand that many of the benefits of the technology – better supply chain visibility and reduced out-of-stock – will be realized only by devising a long-term strategy beyond compliance. Critical to that long-term strategy is investing in education, training and professional certification for the personnel that are called on to implement RFID solutions.

RFID is a complex and still evolving technology. Expertise is absolutely required for its usage to be a success. The skill sets and “need-to-knows” related to RFID are many and varied. The pros and cons of slap-and-ship deployments; the landscape for RFID mandates; financial models to realize return on investment; and how to achieve real business benefits from RFID

Consider the route a single piece of RFID-tagged merchandise travels in its lifetime: • Tagged as it leaves as a finished good from its point of origin. • Transported via road, rail, sea, or air to its destination. • Arrives at a dock door. • Travels through a warehouse. • Arrives in a stockroom • Moves to a retail shelf. • Purchased by a customer.

At each stop on this journey RFID readers can conceivably register the presence of the tagged product and report on its whereabouts in real time. Conversely, something can go wrong at any of these points to compromise or render useless the RFID-transmitted data.

RFID remains a finicky technology that can behave differently based on any number of factors, such as the orientation of the RFID tag on the box, carton or pallet; the type of products being tagged; and the environment in which the tagged product is stored. All of these factors can be overcome, but it takes knowledge and experience with radio frequency engineering and design; supply chain management; logistics; warehouse management; and familiarity with RFID products and standards, among other skills.

The CompTIA/Frost & Sullivan survey of 500 North American companies found that a key concern in the market currently is the technology awareness levels of end-users and the various information sources available to them. Figure 1 presents the ranking of the various sources of information based on choice of end-users. The figure represents mean scores from 1 to 5 (5 being most important and 1 being least important).

The lack of technical skills at the end-user’s side is perceived as an impediment, especially during the implementation phase. Since the technology is still evolving and by nature it is not ‘plug and play,’ even a small installation requires extensive integration during that phase. However, there is a certain level of reluctance among end-users to invest heavily in extensive training of their staff due to the high investment required. Most top management view RFID adoption as only a supportive technology to improve the process efficiency of the core business. Therefore, investment decisions on RFID training compete against alternate investments.

RFID training programs are growing in number and in the scope of their content. During the first half of 2005, some educational institutions and for-profit training providers came out with exclusive, vendor-neutral courses that offer instruction in foundation-level RFID skills. Examples of the latter include programs offered by training providers such as American RFID Solutions, OTA Training and RFID4U. Organizations such as these are delivering training in a variety of formats (classroom, online and onsite; and e-learning and instructor-led) and targeted to enhance the skills of RFID novices to the most experienced technical professionals.
A variety of vendor-orchestrated training programs are available as well, though most of them are restricted to training on their own products and technology. Programs designed by hardware vendors are mostly intended for the operations staff and are generally restricted to operational aspects of the systems and the business or the physics related to the technology is not touched upon. However, some of these training programs are customized to end-users, based on their budget and specific needs.

In most cases middleware vendors do not provide training directly to end-users. Their training is mostly restricted to systems integrators who are expected to build API layers over the middleware architecture or framework provided by them. In rare cases, where this is done at the end-user’s end, training is imparted to the IT staff of the end-user.

Vendors today also offer a variety of RFID “starter kits,” typically consisting of a single handheld/desktop reader/scanner/writer, a label printer and RFID labels/badges/cards. Most starter kits also include a USB cable along with an information booklet or CD. A typical starter kit can be priced between $1,500 and $3,000. With these starter kits, users can have hands-on experiences in real life RFID environments. They also help users visualize systems requirements and business process environment that will come into play in case of a subsequent larger roll out.

CompTIA is currently working with more than 20 organizations with leadership positions in the RFID arena to develop a professional certification to address the skills shortage by establishing an industry accepted credential that validates an RFID technician’s knowledge and skills in the areas of installation, maintenance, repair, and upkeep of hardware and software functionality of RFID products.

What are the benefits of a vendor-neutral, foundation-level RFID certification? Many of the benefits fall in the category of reduced costs for such things as: • Eliminating redundant training that might otherwise be delivered by multiple channel partners. • Providing a pre-built curriculum for internal training. • Providing a measurement of individual’s skills – the certification is a reliable predictor of employee success. • Enabling the evaluation of a partner’s, or potential partners’ capabilities. The certification provides a standard way of measuring competency – a benchmark. • Enabling the industry to deliver more RFID implementations, producing more revenue for the industry as a whole and the companies using the certification. The skilled workforce will be capable of delivering a greater number of implementations and there will be higher customer satisfaction with the delivered solutions.

Every RFID deployment is different. While the fundamentals remain the same, each deployment is unique because of differences in products, processes and physical environment. There is no such thing as “RFID-in-a-box.”

Expect the unexpected when it comes to RFID deployment, because unpredictable variables can occur at any stage of the deployment. But however imperfect and expensive RFID may be today, it is not going away. The more experienced, trained and certified the RFID team, the better they will be able to overcome these obstacles.

David Sommer is vice president of electronic commerce for the Computing Technology Industry Association (www.comptia.org), a global trade association representing the business interests of the information technology industry. He is responsible for developing and implementing the association’s worldwide initiatives in areas such as radio frequency identification and electronic commerce.

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