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Sun Opens New RFID Playground

Sun Microsystems Wednesday opened its inaugural RFID Test Center for customers and partners.

First announced in November, the center has loading docks, high-speed conveyor belts and pallet rollers, all equipped with RFID readers. Around 400 customers, partners, local business people and press braved the Texas heat and wind to sip margaritas and scarf Mexican food while touring the working, RFID-enabled warehouse as a steel band played.

"The point is to enable companies to test their intended usage of RFID technology, and do it in way they can make it as scientifically repeatable as possible," said Juan Carlos Soto, director of advanced development for Sun.

RFID technology enables the automatic exchange of information between a tag and a reader. The information can be sent from the reader to a database or other computer systems. The test center will let suppliers test different RFID implementations to see if they meet various customers' mandates; Wal-Mart, the U.S. Department of Defense, Target, and grocery chain Albertsons all have imposed some requirements for their suppliers to begin shipping products with consistent tags containing electronic product codes (EPCs) that follow the standards set by industry organization EPCglobal.

Kicking off the event, Sun announced a complete RFID package, developed in partnership with consulting firm Capgemini. The package of hardware, software and services is based on Sun Java Enterprise System (JDS) software and its RFID infrastructure software that works with the major EPC-enabled readers.

Companies will be able to test RFID technology in conjunction with Sun's JDS software and hardware, as well as software and middleware from 16 other vendors. Sun's RFID Test Center is designed to provide a controlled environment that simulates the varying conditions of an actual distribution center or warehouse as specified by RFID mandates.

The working showroom is designed to let customers test and evaluate equipment and solutions before they buy, or to try out various implementations of hardware and software they want to use. For example, at the launch event, tire manufacturer Goodyear discussed its attempt to find the optimal placement for tags on radial steel tires. The test center also will certify that companies' implementations comply with mandates, and there are several pre-configured tests that companies can sign on for.

"Some customers are looking at this only to comply with the mandate from the Department of Defense," Soto said. "The test center gives them an effective means to verify their implementation. Others need someone to come in and consult with them."

Depending on the complexity of the task, companies might use the center for two weeks or as long as three months.

"It was good to see a live, working demonstration of the technologies out there. They have usable tests they can run on products," said Gartner analyst Jeff Woods, who attended the launch event. He said he test center is focused on mandate compliance. "It's not really extending itself into the larger business process transformation space yet."

Suppliers should be aware however, that the test center is not the real world, according to Ian McPherson, principle analyst with the Wireless Data Research Group.

"Certainly they are useful for vendors to get an idea of what's possible," he said. "But they're best-case scenarios, very controlled environments. These things are notoriously fickle. Everything from how a box or tag is position in line to 'where it is affixed?' to 'how quickly a pallet might move past a reader?' is scripted so that it shows well in the lab."

Sun partnered with a variety of companies to demonstrate end-to-end implementations. Partners are: ADT Security Services, Alien Technology Ltd., Applied Wireless Identification Group Inc., i2, Matrics Inc., Nortel Networks, Printronix Inc., ProdexNet, Provia, SAMSys Technologies, SeeBeyond, SupplyScape, Texas Instruments, TIBCO, Tyco Fire & Security and Venture Research.

The Dallas/Fort Worth location of the test center is handy. On April 30, Wal-Mart began field tests with manufacturers of their RFID initiatives in its regional distribution center there.

McPherson said RFID test centers, which are springing up all over, are a great idea for the technology vendors, because they can sell together. "It's beyond the reach of the vendors to have all the pieces within their own product portfolio. The customer will be owned by the person who can deliver the system, rather than the component guys," he said.

The RFID mandates could open up more opportunity for these vendors than simply selling the infrastructure for reading tags on products. Mark Whitton, general manager of wireless LAN solutions for Nortel Networks, said that the same wireless backbone used for tracking goods could provide plenty of other efficiencies.

"It opens up a lot of new opportunities for networking the factory floor," he said. For example, service technicians could communicate via voice-over-Wi-Fi, while test stations could be linked via wireless instead of cables, making them easier to reconfigure. "It's continuing the whole trend toward a wireless workplace."

While the vendors hope RFID will provide the entry point into huge, holistic data deployments, McPherson said that suppliers are backing off from full-scale deployments.

"Now, a lot of people back in the boardroom are saying, 'Well, maybe slap-and-ship compliance is our first step,'" he said. "'Let us work with it internally to find out where the value lies, so we can make it strategic in the long run.'"

Gartner's Woods concurred. "Six months ago, a lot of Wal-Mart suppliers were looking at how they could make this benefit their businesses Today, most suppliers we talk to have concluded that at the case and pallet level, they can't see a lot of benefit [to tagging], so they're interested in straightforward compliance testing. They want to support Wal-Mart, they want to be a good partner, but they want to do it at a low cost."