RFID technology may be “new” in the sense that its commercialisation is just now occurring on a similar trajectory that barcode technology did in the 1970s, but it’s far from nascent.
Zebra started collaborating with Texas Instruments on high-frequency RFID technology in the early 1990s, and our first RFID printers and rugged handheld computers hit the market in the early 2000s. In fact, as of 2021, companies around the world had bought over 100 billion RAIN RFID tags, and full-scale deployments are becoming more prolific in manufacturing, retail, healthcare and supply chain environments by the day.
But as RFID becomes a more urgent investment – and as structurally essential to operations as the barcode – many companies are realizing that they don’t quite know where to start with RFID. Is yours one of them?
Instead of sitting and waiting to see what others do, let’s talk about what you can do right now to get ahead of, or perhaps catch up to, your competition, customers, and regulatory bodies. They aren’t going to wait for you to figure things out and, depending on your industry, new track and trace requirements are going to take effect soon, if they haven’t already. If you’re still relying exclusively on barcode-based systems to monitor and manage inventory when those deadlines arrive, you’re going to find yourself paying the price – either in lost business, fines, or rushed RFID solution implementations.
So, here’s what you need to do to set yourself up for success, no matter what’s driving you to embrace RFID technology:
STEP ONE: BUILD ORGANISATIONAL KNOWLEDGE AROUND RFID
It is so important to do your research. I see a lot of people draw parallels between RFID and barcode technology, and that will get you in trouble. Both technologies may be used for track and trace, inventory control and other overlapping applications. But that does not make them “similar” technologies.
Learn the language of RFID and ask lots of questions. Just like “automation” or “mobility,” RFID is a broad technology category. Read blog posts, listen to podcasts, attend webinars and industry events, and speak one-on-one with people who have extensive domain expertise in RFID, such as RAIN Alliance or GS1 members.
STEP TWO: FIND AN EXPERIENCED RFID INTEGRATOR
Ideally, you should be working with someone who has expertise deploying solutions in your vertical. (In other words, don’t go to a retail-focused integrator for a package/parcel RFID solution. And if you’re a drug store, make sure you choose someone with both retail and healthcare/pharma experience and possibly even food and beverage experience, if you stock such goods.) When you sit down to speak with integrators or host them on site (which is best) …
Start by scoping the problem. Focus in narrowly on the issue you're trying to solve or the objective you’re trying to meet with RFID. Do you need better inventory visibility? Are you struggling to find critical assets? Are you losing returnable containers? Once you define desired outcomes, then you can start to talk about the changes needed to get there. But don’t steer the conversation to specific technology solutions too quickly.
Avoid overly broad "boiling the ocean" types of solutions – at least until you gain some experience with RFID technology. And don’t get too caught up in comparing RFID technologies on your own. An RFID expert can provide clarity on how the recommended RFID technology works.
Understand the differences between RFID and other location technologies. You might learn that you actually need something else to achieve your objective/solve your problem. So, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions about what’s being recommended and why – and why a different type of technology is not recommended. This is particularly true when it comes to RFID printer/encoders, inlays and tags/labels.
Remember, RFID solutions are ultimately about data, and it's the role of the printer/encoder to make sure that your tag data is encoded accurately and efficiently. If you can't trust the data on your tags, it doesn't matter how fast or far away your readers can read them. The RFID inlay, label, and encoding method are the foundation of any RFID solution, so you’ll want to choose something that’s high quality, purposefully designed for your industry or application and thoroughly tested to meet industry standards. You do not want to order the wrong label material, printers, or inlays, so make sure you understand how they’re constructed and how they work.
For example, Zebra uses an RFID module we built in-house – the RE40 – in most of our RFID printers/encoders, including the new ZD621R/ZD611R desktop printers and the new ZT231R industrial printer. We also use a patented adaptive encoding antenna array, which enables accurate encoding of the shortest pitch labels made today. This adaptive encoding technology will give you extensive tag flexibility and simple RFID calibration, making label changes easy even for inexperienced users. That, in turn, makes a single Zebra RFID printer usable for many different applications. It also prevents IT teams, front-line workers, or even third-party managed print service providers from having to understand and implement complex placement guidelines, and that saves time and frustration. However, the RFID encoding system might not be something you would think to ask vendors about when shopping around for RFID printers, even though it’s super important.
Of course, before you recommend a printer to your boss or decide which you’re going to buy, you’ll also want to speak with a trusted RFID advisor to confirm…
1. What type of printer and what size printer you need to support all your RFID applications? You may need an industrial printer like the ZT610R, ZT411R or ZT231R that offers UHF RFID encoding if you’re printing tags in a manufacturing facility, warehouse, or stockroom. But, then again, a 4” RFID desktop printer/encoder like the ZD621R might be perfect if you’re printing wristbands, tickets, or specimen and lab samples in healthcare. If you’re a retailer, pharmacy or restaurant owner, a 2” RFID desktop printer/encoder like the ZD611R might be better for you for recall management, expiration date tracking or overall merchandise control. Additional options include rugged and premium RFID mobile printers – popular for retail exception tagging – and RFID print engines, which are used for automated encoding and print and apply in high-volume package and parcel logistics.
2. The specific printer features you’ll need for easy printer management, constant security and long-term scalability. There are both software and hardware components to this criteria list. For example, you’ll want to understand what operating system (OS) is used, how often it can be updated, what you will have to do to update it, and how long it will be serviced by the printer manufacturer. (Not many people realise printers have an OS like smartphones, mobile computers, tablets, and laptops.) Printers also have both wired and wireless connectivity capabilities like other devices, so you’ll want to inquire about which connections come standard and which may be available as a factory or field upgradeable option. Of course, you’ll also want to think about things like memory, speed and accessories, which in this case might include a dispenser, peeler and cutter, a spare battery, or a carrying case.
One thing that not all printers have – but you definitely need – is a full set of device management tools that can be used by IT and front-line teams alike. At Zebra, these tools are part of what we call Print DNA, and they’re built into Zebra printers. If you use a mobile device management (MDM) or enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform to manage your mobile computers, you can think of the Print DNA toolset in the same vein, though Print DNA is built into Zebra printers and usually more extensive than what you’d get with a third-party solution. Essentially, it’s a set of enterprise software tools that give you everything you need to integrate, deploy, secure, manage, and optimise your Zebra printers, all of which can be remotely accessed and applied to your entire networked Zebra fleet via the Printer Profile Manager Enterprise platform.
As far as I know, you won’t get such an extensive software toolset or the ease of manageability with other manufacturers’ RFID printers, but this is something you’ll want to look into when you’re comparing printer options. Printer performance is based on many things, almost all of which correlate back to how the printer is integrated, deployed, secured, managed and optimised. (See where I’m going, here?)
Plus, Zebra RFID printers are certified in 70+ countries, which is important if you have a multinational supply chain. The last thing you want to find out is that your selected printer/encoder isn't available for your company’s global expansion or other digital transformation initiative.
3. The right RFID inlay and label. I can’t stress this enough but choosing the right label material and inlay is just as critical as picking a reliable, long-lasting RFID printer. Zebra alone offers over 300 combinations of pre-tested material and ribbon combinations, and there are several different inlays and IC chips – all of which require application RFID read range testing. So, it’s important you work with an RFID solution provider that can give you everything you need for a wide range of applications and use environments. Just make sure they also have the ability to validate the solution’s performance (which Zebra does). If an RFID tag does not meet readability requirements or is not suitable for your surface or environment, you stand to lose a lot, including operational visibility, inventory, customers’ business, and a competitive edge. So, don’t just go with the first “RFID label” someone recommends. Ask why it’s recommended.
Another word of advice: if your RFID solution advisor isn’t asking you lots of questions before they make an RFID tag or inlay recommendation, you might want to talk to someone else before spending any money. An experienced RFID solution/supplies provider will want to know:
- What type of items are being tagged.
- How much space is available on an asset for the tag.
- What surface is being labelled.
- What type of environment they’ll be in throughout their lifecycle
- What information is being encoded.
- What the read range expectations are and who or what will be reading the RFID label. Will an overhead reader, handheld reader, or RFID portal be used? Or possibly all the above?
They’ll also consider which adhesive is needed, whether direct thermal or thermal transfer is better and how long will the RFID tag need to last, among many other things – some of which are listed in this RFID supplies guide. And they will most certainly have a conversation with you about which RFID data standard is best (which you can learn more about in this RFID Journal article or this presentation from a recent RAIN Alliance event.)
STEP THREE: TEST YOUR PROPOSED SOLUTION TO BUILD TRUST
Success stories are great, but they aren’t your story. Just because a competitor is using RFID a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you. Likewise, the solution design, development and implementation process is exceptionally personal to you. So…
Be sure your integrator draws on best practices and past experiences but prioritises your unique challenges, system architecture, and change management requirements. This includes the outside-in change management needed considering the typical upstream and downstream effects of RFID implementations.
If you have the time and resources to do a proof of concept, do it. This “soft launch” period enables you to solicit feedback from front-line workers, partners, customers and others impacted by your new RFID-driven processes and make adjustments before you go live and people assume the project is complete. (Even though you and I know constant refinement will be key.)
Validate with industry bodies. The Auburn RFID Lab is a center of excellence and a great resource for retail RFID applications. The Axia Institute is similar, but serves as a center of excellence more so for the pharmaceutical supply chain and Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) compliance in the U.S. Both offer vendor neutral consulting and implementation advice, though I should note Zebra sponsors both organizations and provides RFID equipment for validation efforts. Both also regularly host live events, like other similar organizations around the world. Ask your local RFID advisor if you should consult with the Auburn RFID Lab, Axia Institute or other similar entity in your region/country.
WHATEVER YOU DO…
Make sure to follow a tag data standard, ideally one from GS1, ISO, or the RAIN Alliance. Tag memory is limited, following a data standard will help you make the most of it. Both GS1 and RAIN Alliance have application and vertical specific discussion groups and work groups, which are great venues to learn best practices from both RFID experts and current users of the technology. Attend one of their live meetings/events if possible.
Remember that current operational requirements and ambitions are temporary. Consider future scalability needs when researching and designing your RFID solution. If you’re working with the right RFID technology provider and integrator, they’ll make sure this stays top of mind. Just be sure you also have a plan for ongoing solution maintenance and a commitment for lifecycle support from the integrator or solution provider.
Ask the hard questions – of your RFID advisor and yourself – and get answers to them all before making decisions. RFID implementations are long-term, big investments (even though costs are coming down significantly). Though there’s room for adjustment after go-live, you don’t want to get too many things wrong out of the gate.
Don’t force-fit RFID if a barcode-based solution is best. RFID isn’t a replacement for barcodes. It’s meant to complement the barcode and, in some cases, close gaps in current data capture and reporting capabilities. So, while you likely need to pick up a little extra speed and introduce more simplicity across your data-driven workflows, don’t rush to rollout RFID solutions just because you think that’s the way of the future. Yes, RFID technology is going to become as prolific as barcode technology – but they’re going to co-exist for the foreseeable future, even if the barcode eventually starts to take on new forms.
Don’t overcomplicate the solution! The most successful RFID deployments are often the simplest. For example, in retail most RFID use cases are purely for inventory accuracy – start there before thinking about more complicated solutions like RFID for loss-prevention or RFID for point of sale. Build confidence in the technology, stabilise the solution’s performance, get your stakeholders believing in the benefits of RFID, then expand your use cases one by one, repeating the above steps each time.