The Problem Solvers
Systems integrators help clients create the RFID solutions that will meet their business needs, while getting disparate components to function together seamlessly and cost-efficiently.
By John Edwards
Feb. 19, 2013—
Few businesses possess the in-house knowledge and skill necessary to develop and install their RFID solutions without outside assistance. Systems integrators help the vast majority of RFID adopters, offering design, testing, installation, training and other essential services.
“Companies need a systems integrator,” says John Devlin, practice director of security and ID at ABI Research, a technology market research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y. “I don’t think the market has evolved yet to a stage where it’s anywhere near plug and play. Systems integrators have quite a lot of knowledge of the market, in terms of being able to implement RFID for customers and to tailor the solution for them.”
Put simply, systems integrators are the experts that blend RFID hardware and software elements into a coordinated, functional solution that can solve a company’s business problems. But finding a qualified systems integrator can, at times, be almost as challenging as building an RFID system from scratch. You want an integrator that has experience working in your industry and is not experimenting on your time—one that understands your business issues and can recommend ways to improve operational efficiencies.
The integrator should have experience with both passive and active RFID systems, so it can recommend the technology that is best for your company, and not just the system with which it is most familiar. And you want an integrator that will become part of your internal RFID team and be invested in your company’s goals.
Here, then, are best practices for choosing and working with a systems integrator that will help ensure the success of your RFID deployment.
Develop an RFP
Once you’ve formed an RFID team composed of people from different departments within your company and have identified the problems you need to tackle first, you’re ready to hire a systems integrator. You’ll need to draw up a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP), an essential tool for obtaining formal project bids, and determine which integrators to invite into the bidding process.
You could use the systems integration services offered by a technology provider that specializes in your industry or an independent firm that can mix and match technologies from different hardware and software vendors. To identify potential candidates, read RFID news stories and case studies to see which integrators have experience working in your industry and region, as well as integrating RFID with back-end systems similar to those your company uses. The “Why We Chose Our Systems Integrator” profiles at the end of this article provide real-world insight into the selection process.
When requesting bids, it makes no sense to hand out RFPs to integrators that are substantially larger
than your own business. “There’s no point in a one- or two-site company with just a local interest using a multinational IT consultancy as their systems integrator,” Devlin says. “In that case, you just want to call a local specialist, an integrator that will be able to dedicate time to assist you on your system.”
A carefully thought-out, well-crafted RFP will include the project’s goals, general and specific requirements, desirable features, performance expectations, timeline estimation and pricing requirements. Unless all these details are included in the document, there’s a strong likelihood the systems integrator will respond by asking for more information. Most bid documents provide too few details, says Steve Halliday, president of High Tech Aid, an RFID advisory firm in Gibsonia, Pa. A subpar RFP keeps integrators from developing a complete response.
If an integrator requests more specifics, don’t be discouraged, says Halliday, who also is a founding
partner of RFIDTraxx, an RFID systems integrator in Westlake, Ohio, noting that a rapid-fire response may, in fact, signal trouble. “If the systems integrator provides an immediate quote, chances are they do not understand the problem,” he says. “A good independent systems integrator will ask a lot of questions before proposing a system.”
While RFID project leaders should try to pack as much detailed information as possible into an RFP, it’s OK to leave things open-ended when you don’t understand how certain RFID functions or processes will work or how the new deployment can be designed to mesh with existing business processes and systems. “The enterprise does not need to be fully informed before looking for the systems integrator,” Halliday says. “In fact, we have seen situations where the customer listed desires—in the way of particular hardware or a particular way to solve the problem—and the decisions severely limited the solutions in a way that a nonoptimal solution was the only choice [available to the integrator].”
Ray Cavanagh, VP of New Orleans-based security systems integrator Crescent Guardian, agrees that it’s usually beneficial to give an integrator at least some leeway in system design and component selection. “While it’s always a good thing to have knowledgeable customers, I think it can be a bad thing if their opinions are so strong that they’re not open to other suggestions,” he says. “Part of what integrators are being tasked with is finding not only the best solution in the market, but the best solution for the customer on the market.”
Evaluate the Bids
In an effort to secure your business, some systems integrators may submit a bid that lowballs anticipated cost, time or performance expectations. “You want to be wary of anything that’s too good to be true,” Devlin says. “Integrators that promise the earth, that say you can simply plug and play an RFID solution—they are the ones you want to watch out for.”
An unbelievably low bid may be a sign that the integrator is trying to get the prospective client to deploy a generic, one-size-fits-all solution, he says. Such systems rarely meet a business’ RFID vision. “In every kind of case and implementation, every adopter has slightly different requirements, different expectations,” he notes.
Developing an RFID system is kind of like shopping for a new car, Cavanagh says. “You can make an argument that a Lexis, Acura, Mercedes or BMW are all similar in terms of being the best car,” he says. “But some have front-wheel drive, some don’t; some ride stiff, some ride soft.” The real question, he says, is: “What’s the best car for me?”
Just as a car shopper visits several dealers to find the one offering a suitable vehicle on the most beneficial terms, the business looking for a knowledgeable and reliable systems integrator must examine all the bids received, select the most promising providers, and then schedule presentations and discussions. Think of these sessions as “test drives.”
Yet, finding an integrator that meets a project’s basic performance, cost and time mandates is only half the battle. The provider also should have experience developing the type of system the RFP describes, as well as a strong commitment to quality and an ability to work closely and creatively with clients.
“Having a systems integrator with a track record in the client’s market definitely pays dividends,” Devlin says. “Ideally, you want a company with a proven track record, knowledge of hardware performance, read range, interference and the different environmental conditions that may have to be encountered.”
Collaborate With Your Systems Integrator
Businesses that turn to an integrator to create or revamp an RFID system need to feel comfortable in their partnership. To develop an RFID system that works reliably and efficiently while providing tangible benefits, both parties must agree on basic approaches and goals. A good integrator, particularly one that specializes in deployments tailored to businesses operating in a specific industry, provides insights into technologies and processes that surpass the client’s original expectations, says Chris Castaldi, business development manager for W& H Systems, a Carlstadt, N.J., systems integrator that specializes in retail deployments.
Understanding key processes, as well as RFID’s role within those activities, is perhaps the most important ability an integrator brings to a project, Castaldi says. “We always look at an RFID implementation as a process-improvement project,” he says. “In deciding whether to utilize the technology, it is vital to analyze the current or upcoming business practices carefully and determine which aspects can be improved by implementing an RFID-based solution.” Analysis and planning, he says, require an integrator to collect information from project stakeholders in key business areas, including management, IT, production and logistics.
Integrators also help clients make sense out of a technology that seems at times almost overripe with
possibilities. Tags alone present an array of bewildering options. “RFID tags come in hundreds of different configurations,” Castaldi says. “W&H determines which vendors’ products to use based on the client’s specific needs.”
Beyond choosing tags, systems integration involves more work than many businesses realize, Devlin says. “The tags may be fairly simple in terms of setup and usage, but then you have to think about how, where and when things are going to be read,” he says. “Also, in terms of integration—be it IT infrastructure or other systems—there can be quite a bit of customization required.”
Systems integrators also help clients solve challenges that often seem overwhelming. Castaldi recalls working with a Walmart supplier that wanted to make the retailer’s Direct Store Distribution Center supplier list, an initiative that requires individual pallets to be created for each store the supplier serves. To meet Walmart’s requirements, the supplier needed to improve its turnaround time and accuracy performance, as well as double its distribution center capacity.
W&H proposed, and eventually provided, a “pick-to-light” solution that directs order fulfillment via light
indicator modules mounted onto shelving, pallets, conveyors, racks and other storage fixtures and assets. “Whenever product is needed from a particular location, the right indicator light turns on, drawing attention to where action is required,” Castaldi says. The operator picks the product quantity displayed and then confirms the pick by pressing the lit module button. “Using RFID and real-time feedback audit stations, orders are confirmed when picked correctly,” he says. “The company is now able to process orders quickly, cost-effectively and accurately, processing greater than 90,000 units per day, up from 50,000, at an accuracy rate of approximately 99.75 percent.”
Plan for the Long-Term
While many businesses planning an RFID system focus primarily on their short-term needs, it’s also important to consider how adaptable today’s deployment will be to future demands. Designing a system that’s extensible—capable of growing in size and scope as well as adjusting to new technologies and processes—can help a business keep pace with changing needs without having to deploy a new RFID system from scratch every few years.
An extensible system may also be able to support a business in solving existing issues unrelated to the main project, reducing or eliminating the need to create separate systems for individual processes. These are matters that should be discussed with the systems integrator at the start of the partnership and periodically thereafter.
An integrator’s responsibilities don’t end on the day the system is successfully activated. Aftercare is also essential. Long-term support arrangements should be specified and solidified at the project’s outset. Support costs, as well as the length of time the integrator will stand behind its work without demanding additional payment, must be specified at the start.
Halliday offers a final word of advice to companies planning a new RFID system. “Look around,” he says. “Make sure you approach some of the smaller systems integrators as well as the big ones.” Don’t assume that the big companies have the best solutions. “Ask colleagues in your industry who have planned similar systems and learn from their experiences.”
WHY WE CHOSE OUR SYSTEMS INTEGRATOR
Had Experience With Similar Deployments
At the request of a key customer, logistics services provider Port Logistics needed to install an RFID inventory-tracking system at one of its Los Angeles-area warehouses. With the company’s reputation at stake, Port Logistics managers needed a systems integrator that could assure maximum accuracy, performance and reliability. “We run 24×7 operations, so we looked for providers with a stable, scalable hardware solution that had demonstrated the ability to work in high-volume shipping environments,” says Greg Morello, Port Logistics’ chief marketing officer. The company ultimately decided to use technology and integration services from RFID infrastructure manufacturer Tagsys. “Our evaluation criteria focused on reliability and interoperability,” Morello says. “Our customers have very high requirements regarding system uptime and the ability to communicate across multiple platforms.”
Understood the Business Process
When Cisco Systems decided to use RFID to manage fixed assets within 70 U.S. data centers and research and development labs, a 15-member evaluation committee reviewed requests for information, as well as proposals, oral presentations and solution demonstrations, from roughly a dozen RFID providers. The team selected RFID Global Solution as its systems integrator. “The choice of our RFID partner was really based on the fact that they had a good understanding of the business process behind the technology,” says Maryanne Flynn, Cisco’s director of operations, who co-managed the initiative. “It wasn’t just about getting good read rates.”
Offered Hardware Flexibility
As Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Alliance began searching for assistance in designing and deploying a real-time location system (RTLS) patient-monitoring environment, it needed a partner that had a ready-made rules engine capable of supporting virtually any brand of RTLS hardware. After considering its options, Texas Health managers selected Intelligent InSites as its systems integrator. “Not only did they not care what hardware we were going to use, but we could use multiple types of technologies to feed into their rules engine,” says Kathi Cox, a Texas Health project consultant. Cox believes it’s important to use a systems integrator that allows maximum design and configuration flexibility. “You need to look for a partner who has an open architecture or you could end up with hardware in your facility and no company to manage it.”
Listened and Learned
Orthopedics implants distributor Zimmer Ohio needed a systems integrator that could commit to learning and understanding a complex and demanding medical technology products distribution system. “We were looking for [a bidder] that was willing to listen to us, learn what our business was about and learn our business processes,” says John Reese, Zimmer’s warehouse and IT Manager. “I was not really happy with the [companies] who came in and told us, ‘Well, this is how it’s done in other places, so this is how we’ll do it for you.'” After meeting with several candidates, Zimmer settled on RFID Enabled Solutions. Reese was most impressed by the company’s commitment to developing extremely reliable systems, an essential attribute when tracking medical device shipments. “We’re sending sometimes hundreds of implants and surgical instruments into a single surgery,” Reese says. “It’s absolutely critical that we’re 100 percent accurate.”