Five Things to Consider When Selecting your RFID Solutions Partner

The Selection of an appropriate RFID solutions partner is a key consideration for any organization planning to deploy RFID. While there are a number of leading solution providers, reputation alone is not the only factor which should be considered when making this choice. A lot depends on the project approach adopted by the solutions provider. Following are some key factors to consider.

  1. If the business hasn’t already carried out a comprehensive requirements study to validate the choice of RFID, this should be the first task of the consultant or the RFID solutions provider. A previous post highlighted some of the factors to be considered when deciding whether RFID is for you. A comprehensive study should establish the current as well as the future needs of the business which needs to be fulfilled with RFID.
    • Identify the data types and frequency at which such data needs to be captured
    • How and where would this data be stored?
    • Who are the consumers of this data and how will it be shared?
  2. If the requirements study phase establishes a clear need for the business to deploy RFID, it is advisable that the solutions provider initiate a Proof of Concept (PoC) study. The objective of this study is to test key technology decisions and assumptions to ensure the achievement of all the critical success criteria prior to a full-scale roll out.
    • Environmental factors tend to significantly impact the design decisions of RFID systems. The presence of metal surfaces, aqueous liquids and other factors which contribute to a ‘noisy environment’ may adversely impact the readability of RFID tags. These need to be extensively investigated in the solution architecture & design by the solutions team.
    • Different combinations of readers, antennas and tags are extensively tested by the solutions team to identify the optimal combinations and configurations suited for the specific business needs. A well planned and executed proof of concept study is invaluable to make the right technology choices and ensure the right solution.
    • RFID solution experts with the right skills and relevant past experience in implementing real world solutions will consider all of the above and any other factors which might impact the ultimate success of the project.
    • Finally, all the key findings from PoC study should be collected and presented to key stakeholders to create alignment prior to full-scale deployment.
  3. Upon securing the approval to move forward, many of the purchase decisions need to be made. An RFID solutions partner with the right global partnerships can source the equipment and components and also expedite the installation of the RFID infrastructure minimizing impact on ongoing business activities.
  4. Developing a comprehensive solution is not only the job of RFID experts. The RFID solutions provider should also be prepared to make available multiple other skills including Business Analysts, Test Engineers, Project and Program Managers and Software Engineers to craft the total solution.
  5. From product tagging to operating the RFID equipment, business users must be methodically trained by the solutions team on both the equipment and the overall solution to ensure proper change management to ensure a smooth transition into RFID.

Zone24x7 counts over a decade of experience in deploying RFID solutions across multiple industries. We have custom designed hardware, software, robotics and fully integrated solutions to cater to the unique and challenging business needs of our clients. This blog post outlines an approach which we have successfully adopted during our many client engagements to maximize the success of our projects.

Nuwan Weerasinghe

Was Head of Marketing

Managing Innovation with Design Thinking: Part 3

The story behind the RFID Inventory Tracking Robot continued . . .

Part III: The Need for Collaboration in Design Thinking

Retail and more precisely department stores in the United States is a business under severe pressure from online pure plays like Amazon. Apart from few “Off Price” retailers, almost everyone else is facing stagnant revenue growth and increasing costs resulting in dwindling margins. It is for such an industry that we are developing this revolutionary product, a RFID inventory tracking smart robot (to obtain one single view on inventory). An industry, which by all measures is on a downward spiral.

So how did this rather bleak industry outlook influence our design thinking approach for innovation strategy?

We realized the need to offer flexibility to clients in terms of “getting on board”. They would be naturally averse to large CapEx investments in an area, which they consider to be not yet mature (robotics in retail).

We understood the need for other “auxiliary” benefits for a retailer from a robot beyond inventory, for ROI justification. However we were conscious not to waver on the key offering of retail inventory management across channels.

It was evident that the robot must be autonomous in every possible way to avoid involving store associates in its operation. Store associates are already stretched with many different and demanding tasks and they simply do not want to take care of a robot. We even went to the length of actually checking job postings for store associates, in order to understand their required skill levels. This enabled us to determine their suitability to operate a robot.

We had to build a RFID inventory tracking robot, which behaves less like a robot and more like an appliance. An inventory appliance, which does its job without much fanfare. Just like how our washing machines and refrigerators work.

It was clear that if we want to appeal to the so called Innovators and Early Adopters and Cross the Chasm as per Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Life Cycle, we had to create a value proposition in line with above realities. I must admit that the above revelations impacted our design in a significant manner. We also did not want to limit ourselves to these explicit needs of our customer as we payed attention to rather latent needs as well. We understand that some of these could be quite futuristic in retail, which is positive from a product road map standpoint. Some of these latent and implied needs were identified by looking at competitor offerings and also by thinking deep about our clients and their challenges in Omnichannel fulfillment.

Image: RFID Inventory Tracking Robot, AZIRO. A product of Zone24x7.

When embarking on a project like this, one needs to clearly assess the strengths and capabilities (core competencies) of the team. We were under no delusion that we are capable of doing everything on our own. We believe that the right kind of partnerships would immensely improve the chances of reaching our customers faster.

Human Centered Design and Collaboration as a Force Multiplier

We are already in discussion with potential manufacturing partners. We leverage on their knowledge not only to enhance the design to be technically feasible but also to ensure that it is desirable and viable from a client’s business standpoint. Once fully operational, we realized how critical these RFID inventory tracking robots would be for our clients and the need for minimal downtime. Hence, we are thinking long term and reaching out to partners with the necessary infrastructure and capacity to repair and maintain these robots for our customers.

A thorough value chain analysis was conducted to understand, where exactly we fit-in in this value chain equation of our retail clients. To our delight, we saw many more potential opportunities to partner with organizations, who are already marketing complementing solutions and services for a common clientele in retail.

The kind of complex and connected systems, which are required today to solve challenging business problems of our clients, cannot be solved with the creative genius of an individual or an organization. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the key.

The Mind of the Design Thinker

In a world where technology is fast becoming a commodity, I would like to consider the more right brain leaning task of design thinking and the design thinking processes as a true competitive advantage. Once internalized by every individual and every business function of an organization, design thinking and its processes should be part of an organizational culture or rather “How we do things here”.

Tim Brown in his 2008 HBR article “Design Thinking” has highlighted several characteristics of a Design Thinker such as Empathy, Integrative Thinking, Optimism, Experimentalism and Collaboration. It’s advisable for a team to reflect upon themselves to see how much they demonstrate such behavior.

Final Thoughts

Developing disruptive products, like in our case pose many challenges to a team. Design Thinking brings clarity into the process and helps the team better articulate the purpose or the “why” of the products or service. Out of many benefits, finding our “why” for the Autonomous Retail Inventory Tracking Robot might probably be rated as the best outcome of adopting Design Thinking and Design Thinking Processes.

You can read Part 1 and 2 of this series, Managing Innovation with Design Thinking, here.

References and Further Reading:

  • Brown, T. (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review
  • Brown, T. (2009). Change By Design. New York: HarperCollins
  • Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The Art of Innovation (1st ed.). New York: Random House
  • Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within us all. New York: Random House

Nuwan Weerasinghe

Was Head of Marketing

Managing Innovation with Design Thinking

The story behind the Autonomous RFID Inventory Tracking Robot . . .

Part I: Inspiration for Design Thinking

 first came across “The Art of Innovation” by Tom Kelley in 2008 and immediately fell in love with it. That was a time I was feeling the desire to experiment within the limited opportunities I was presented with. It was a short, yet inspiring read and resulted in me following IDEO much more intensely. Many years later “Creative Confidence” and “Change By Design” provided further impetus to try and practice Design Thinking in managing our innovation processes and strategies.

Around the same time, I got introduced to a project what is known today as the, The RFID Autonomous Inventory Tracking Robot. The challenge was to help retailers take store inventory as frequently as possible for Omnichannel Fulfillment, incurring as less cost as possible.

Confronted with these multiple challenges, I was naturally inclined to experiment with design thinking.

This project provided a real world opportunity to put all what I had read and tried over the last few years into practice. While the journey is still in progress, this is an attempt to reveal a bit about our approach to designing a solution, which will dramatically change a very central facet of modern day retail inventory management in supply chain.

I pen this post only as a precursor to a series, which will elaborate how we incorporated design thinking into our work. Due to the nature of the work involved, I would try to only reveal things strictly related to the topic and not deviate too much.

Part II: Empathizing with the Customer

Design thinking puts the customer right at the epicenter of product design. As a designer, you empathize with the customer and make design decisions. The other key facet of design thinking is Integrative Thinking. One would not empathize with a customer without integrative thinking. Integrative thinking is “Big Picture” thinking. The ability to look at the problem at hand, from multiple dimensions.

The more you look at a problem this way, the more opportunities you uncover to add meaningful value to your customer.

A New Normal

One of the first things done was to understand the larger problem context. Retail inventory management has become a major challenge for many retailers.

In particular, selling apparel is fast becoming commoditized. This is happening because customers are getting used to a new normal, “Get more for less”. They want more value, a better overall experience and satisfaction from shopping. At the same time, they do not believe in paying more for that. They want to order goods and return them if necessary and get refunded. They want free shipping and off isle prices.

However, like everything else, this did not happen overnight. But it is questionable whether retailers saw this coming, as they should have.

Annual Inventory Turnover (how many times you sell your complete inventory within a year) is declining for many apparel retailers. Also, many of them report slow moving inventory and inventory gluts. Customers complain on inventory accuracy and that they cannot find the products they want, in-store. From these findings, one could determine that Retail Inventory Management is a pain for the retailer as well as customers.

RFID in Retail Inventory Management 

Radio Frequency tags are the most widespread approach we have today, for item level tracking and information visibility of an apparel. More and more items are source tagged (tagged at the point of manufacture). With high volumes, tag prices also tend to come down to couple of cents USD.

For many retailers, RFID tagging is not a question of IF but WHEN. RFID handheld readers are the most commonly used approach to capture the inventory. These are operated by either store associates or dedicated trained people from inventory service companies.

The concern for retailers is the increasing cost of labor to repeat inventory counts frequently. Then you have ceiling mounted fixed reader systems, which can provide real-time tracking inside a store. Unfortunately, the cost of covering a large store with fixed readers is huge.

So there must be another way to achieve this.

Our solution was to look for this alternative.  It is clear that the new approach must have a high degree of automation to reduce human involvement and also must cost significantly less. This is how the need for a smart inventory robot came about and as we expected, there are already robots claiming to achieve exactly this.

That begs the question, why aren’t retailers adopting these solutions?

From our observations and interactions with retailers, we identified the following as concerns: