RFID Training

Water Feature

So today I had the first of four days of training in the delights of RFID theory and practice given by Intermec, one of the big companies in the arena.

The course was held at their office in Reading, which is conveniently located in what is often referred to as the MCI building, but after the company was taken over is now owned by Verizon in what the front of the buses refer to as the Reading International Business Park, which sits next to the M4/A33 junction on the southern edge of Reading.

The impression has always been given that the building was intended to be used by MCI as a regional HQ, however almost as soon as they moved in the company hit money troubles, and since then most locals have thought that the building was half empty. Certainly walking around the building there is a lot of space, and a number of other companies, like Intermec renting space. The large car park behind the building also appeared to be half empty for most of the day too.

Having said that, it is a very nice building. We had lunch courtesy of Intermec in the subsidised site restaurant, which offered a wide choice of different types of cuisine, and everything from snacks to a full meal. I went for a Beef Madras, which was excellent. Adjacent to the restaurant is a nice water feature, which is visible from the road as you drive past. What isn’t visible is that since the site is on a hill, there is a nice water feature linking an upper and lower pond.

Cottage

One slightly sad feature of the whole site sits adjacent to the main building, alongside the road into the car park, and is a pretty old looking cottage.

I’m assuming that the building is listed, hence why it remains. In some ways I think it makes a slightly depressing site as it is totally out of place in relation to what surrounds it, and location wise sits on a roundabout looking out onto the main dual carriageway into Reading. I guess that for those reasons it probably isn’t used as a house any more, so whilst they’ve followed the letter of the listing rules in preserving the building, I don’t really think that they’ve followed the spirit of the rules, as since with any building the character is as much expressed by the location and use.

Anyway, moving on to the course, it was pretty heavy going technically – I had to remember a whole load of A-Level physics as we looked at the various methods in which RFID works. Whilst I found it complicated, I dread to think how others on the course, none of which, aside from my colleague from work, are native English speakers. We have one Egyptian, two Belgians, two Portuguese and two Hungarians on the course, and certainly in the case of the two Hungarians I think one was at least in part translating for the other. It probably also gets quite interesting for them as the trainer is originally from Taunton, and still occasionally has bits of a classic Somerset accent, which came through quite noticeably when he said ‘RFID‘ a couple of times. In terms of the content, it was pretty obviously an Intermec course, rather than a general course run by Intermec. Although we covered all the different forms of RFID technology, the stuff that Intermec don’t supply was only in brief. We also had a whole section at the end of the day going through the range of Intermec equipment.

Having said that, the trainer did give us some useful tips and tools for working out whether a system is viable in terms of the technology. He also told us a couple of salutary tails, about what users expect from the technology versus what it can actually achieve. For example the oft discussed prospect of tags replacing barcodes on individual items allowing customers to just wheel their trollies out of a supermarket without having to unload onto the checkout is a long way off.

He also told us about a project that he was called in to sort out at a parcel sorting operation in the UK where the initial supplier had led the customer to believe that they could tag almost at the individual parcel level and scan containers of 20 parcels as they passed on a conveyor belt. In actual fact this is nigh on impossible, and the final solution was to tag the containers instead – which achieved what the customer was looking for anyway as the parcels were already sorted by this point anyway.

Another interesting story he told us was about a system he helped to set up for a car dealership in the Middle East. Each car sold by the dealership was tagged, so that when the car was brought in for servicing the technicians could access the service history easily, and also this allowed the cars to be tracked through the various stages of the service, and even linked to spare parts – also tagged – located in the stores. As an added bonus, the tagging allows customers to track progress of their vehicle service in real-time using a web site.

On the next few days of the course we get a chance to try out some of the hardware, exploring the issues with placing the RFID readers correctly, and then on Friday we move on to actually writing the software to process the results from the tags. Certainly interesting stuff.

2 thoughts on “RFID Training”

  1. We tried out the idea of tagging individual bottles of whiskey in a distillery. The idea was that they’d load up a forklift with pallets of boxes of bottles, and drive through a gateway containing fixed readers, which would register all the bottles which had passed through.

    We tried it out – sadly, using whiskey bottles filled with water – and I think the hit rate was something woeful like 20%. Unsurprisingly the trial was cancelled.

    For the moment, our projects are mostly sticking with barcodes. These are generally much more reliably read than RFID at the cost of having a lot less data space, and being quite easy to damage. A customer is currently trialling container tracking, but they need to be able to wash off the labels before reusing the containers, so they’re using pretty weak paper and glue for the barcodes. The containers are stored outside. We weren’t all that surprised when they told us they were having trouble reading the codes…

  2. I meant to also leave a comment about Intermec. We have dealt with their mobile computer hardware in the past, and we tended to find that little things would be unreliable, a different problem on each unit. The joke was that each unit was hand-built.

    I think we last dealt with their hardware a couple of years ago, so the situation may have improved since then, or be completely different with RFID hardware if it’s built by a different division.

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