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New Research Center will accelerate RFID adoption

This is a big week for the RFID community. On Tuesday, the University of Arkansas celebrated the grand opening of the expanded RFID Research Center, which will now operate from its own independent 20,000 square-foot facility.

The new and improved Research Center will pave the way for further deployments in retail apparel while providing research and education to allow other retail verticals to embrace the benefits of RFID. The Center will also focus on emerging retail technologies such as video monitoring, that can be used alongside RFID.

A diagram of the new RFID Research Center at a the University of Arkansas.

“By bringing the entire supply chain together we can do a lot of feasibility work that we weren’t able to do in the past,” says Justin Patton, managing director of the Research Center. “This will help us to drive the total business case, rather than just looking for individual value models.”

The previous Research Center, which was founded in 2005, examined separate pieces of the supply chain. The expanded facility will allow the Center to improve its demonstration, research and laboratory areas, as well as providing new areas for education. The entire supply chain will be represented, from receiving of raw materials through manufacturing of products, to the moving of those products through distribution centers and several retail store formats and ultimately to the consumer home.

While preparing for today’s grand opening, which takes place a day before the annual RFID Forum, Patton took some time to talk to RFID 24-7 about the new facility and how it will impact the industry.

What will the new RFID Research Center bring to the industry?

“There is a push right now toward combining some of the different RF technologies together, especially now as we move beyond just using handhelds on the sales floor or just using source tagging if you are a supplier.

“In the past we just had different pieces of the supply chain represented at the center, but now we have the whole supply chain there so we can do a lot of things that we couldn’t do in the past. We’ll be looking to drive the total business case, rather than just looking for individual value models.”

What is the focus of the new Research Center?

“We’re still heavily retail focused but we are seeing a lot of movement outside of apparel. There are some big pilots coming along and we’ve seen some of the automotive battery tagging that has been announced recently. There are all kinds of expansion opportunities looking at non-apparel items. The electronics industry is well prepped for this because a lot of them have tagged product in the past.”

What is the status of apparel tagging?

“We feel like apparel is pretty much done in terms of trying to prove the business value to retailers. Most retailers now, especially at the tier one level, understand the value is there. I know there is still a long way to adoption and full implementation, but if our task is trying to prove the business value, we have achieved that and we are moving on beyond apparel to other product sectors.”

Retailers clearly understand the benefits from RFID, but what do apparel suppliers stand to gain?

“The most interesting thing for apparel is for the suppliers. Everyone knows that you can take handhelds out on the retail floor and do cycle counts, but we’re trying to get vendors to ramp up and actually start implementing things like distribution center audits and inbound audits and to start leveraging this beyond just making the retailer happy.

“This is where things get really interesting. We worked with a few suppliers on DC audits last year. It was pretty successful and a lot of suppliers picked up on that. We’re seeing a lot of expansion into DC auditing and there are about six apparel manufacturers for replenishable goods now have the capability to use RF systems in their DC for inbound and outbound audits.”

What are some other newer trends that the RFID Research Center will look at?

“One of our best additions is a new pick-pack station that demonstrates RFID very well. Another area that shows great promise is not really an RF technology, but there is a huge shift toward some of the visual recognition technologies. When you combine them with RFID and apply them to retail it’s pretty impressive.

“One of our students has designed a computer program where we put a camera on a table full of denim, and it knows visually whether there are five pairs of jeans or one pair on that table. When you couple that with an RF read, it’s even more accurate because the camera can’t see things that are behind other items. The RF readers can see all the tags, but it’s not sure if it’s getting reads from somewhere else. Being able to combine the two technologies for things like out-of-stock identification and tying inventory more accurately to direct location is really cool stuff. There are a lot of applications for that in the long term that are going to refine the way that stores take inventory and deal with out-of-stocks. We’re not sure how this will develop, but it’s something I’m really excited about.”

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