My Pet Peeves

CDO Technologies' Robert Zielinski discusses the missteps some end users make when deploying RFID, and offers advice for how to avoid such errors. 

By Barb Freda

Dec 23, 2016/RFID Journal —Robert Zielinski is director of commercial marketing at CDO Technologies, a full-service systems-integration firm that uses radio frequency identification and other technologies to solve business problems in a number of industries. RFID Journal has published several case studies about companies that have deployed an RFID solution developed in collaboration with CDO (see Small Repair Business Streamlines Processes, Speed the Plow and RFID Speeds Up Roadway Repairs). When end users have a little bit of knowledge, Zielinski says, that can be a dangerous thing.

RFID Journal: Do you have a pet peeve—something you wish clients or potential clients understood about RFID?

Robert Zielinski: One pet peeve I have is what I call the Hollywood effect —clients who have unrealistic expectations. The notion that I am going to sneak a computer chip into you so I can track you from outer space makes for a really good movie, but it's not realistic. Maybe the craziest call I got was from a plumbing company that wanted to be able to take a complete inventory of a van—a big metal panel van, full of metal parts—every time the van would go in or out a gate on the plumbing company property. They may have seen a demo of a shopping cart getting filled with groceries, with the cart charging for tagged items as a shopper went along, and then they equated the shopping cart with their metal vans, thinking they would then see the contents of each van on a computer screen. I had to explain you can't read through the metal vans and you probably don't want to put a 25-cent tag on a part that costs three cents.

RFID Journal: Do you have another pet peeve?

Zielinski: My other pet peeve, which actually shows the maturity of the technology, is that clients tend to self-diagnose and treat RFID as a commodity.

A majority of the time when folks have a concept about tracking technology, they know what they lose, they saw the technology work somewhere, and they describe what they want it to do. The good news is they expose the business problem right up front—I know what they are losing and that they need to keep track of it.

But then they self-diagnose, because they've learned a little bit about RFID and they have a little bit of knowledge. They know they need antennas, readers and tags. They go looking for the individual pieces themselves. They think, "I have my cell phone, which I know has an RFID reader. Then, if I put one antenna in each of four corners of the building, I just need tags." Unfortunately, they don't know what they don't know.

I need to tell them none of that will work. Sure, their cell phone has a reader, but it is an NFC reader, one of several types of readers out there. And I have to tell them an antenna in one corner of the warehouse likely won't see a small tag hundreds of feet away. And then I have to tell them that just slapping an RFID tag on something, when there are hundreds of varieties of tags, may not solve their problem.

Users see so many options available, but don't know they really cannot just part the job out. Sure, they can find a reader online that might be cheaper than the one suggested for their needs, but they are rarely comparing apples to apples.

RFID Journal: Can you share any other examples of end-user missteps?

Zielinski: I was recently working on an RFID solution with an organization, putting together hardware, software and services. The client called back to say I had not given him a price on handhelds. He didn't understand I wasn't selling him handhelds, the commodities. I was developing the solution and helping him figure out how to get the best ROI. The job of a systems integrator is not about selling those pieces and parts. It is about the solution.

Another company put paper tags onto its laptops to track assets. The laptops had metal cases. They put a tag on the face of the laptop, so when they closed the lid, you couldn't read the tag, and they didn't understand why they weren't able to track the laptops. They learned about pieces and parts, and tried to cobble them together without a systems integrator.

This is why the case studies RFID Journal publishes are so important. They show how it really works: Here is a business problem, and here is how RFID technology was used to solve that problem, here were the challenges we had to overcome.

RFID Journal: How do you explain the benefits of working with a systems integrator?

Zielinski: The company that wanted to track laptops had a sister company doing a great job with an RFID solution. We said, "If you are not going to believe us about your needs, at least believe your own company." The good news is that the company took our advice and let the sister company advise them on how to get value from RFID. They scrapped the laptop tags and went, at their sister company's suggestion, to an RFID class to learn how to use the technology to solve a specific business problem.

They didn't need us as systems integrator in that case, because they learned how to move forward after consulting with their sister company, which had worked with a systems integrator.

In some cases, we are brought to the table by an RFID hardware manufacturer to help the client figure out the entire solution. Manufacturers of readers, tags or antennas know that if the final solution doesn't work, they won't sell a whole lot of readers, tags or antennas. They know the solution better have a business impact.

In one case, a manufacturer recognized that incorporating the RFID hardware would change the client's work-order management systems and business processes. We ended up spending 10 months working with the client. All the way across the value chain, we made sure there would be a business impact. When the solution was ready to roll, this business unit won a global innovation award within the company—it became the thought leader that could guide the rest of the organization in other RFID solutions.

RFID Journal: When companies don't begin RFID projects with a systems integrator, what disadvantages do they face?

Zielinski: To show you what they miss, here is a story about a company that moved ahead with just the parts they thought they needed. They told me they had a tag provider come in, but they couldn't read the tag from more than 4 or 6 inches away. When I came in, they were out collecting data sheets for any tag that could be read at 2 feet—they insisted they needed a tag that could be read from 2 feet away. My first question was, "Why?" What if a tag can be read at 1 foot 9 inches? What about at 4 feet? Are those tags out? I had to get them to talk about the real business problem and what they were trying to do, and how they settled on that 2-foot mark.

Then I asked about the application—what if the results of their research yielded a 3-inch tag getting put onto a 1-inch piece of tooling that then was going off to be machined? That tag would never work. They need to know what tag, why and how it will fit into the environment and the process. They need to understand why it is important where the tag is placed. As it was, if it went to be machined, it would throw everything out of balance.

If a client has some technology in place and is certain they want this reader rather than that reader, that antenna and this tag, and they won't be dissuaded, we can try to help. We might find the hardware they asked for, but it doesn't solve their business problem because they didn't put the business problem at the front. The client will have invested in new technology but may not have solved their business problem.

RFID Journal: So why wouldn't these companies first call in a systems integrator?

Zielinski: It is just not their style, or they don't know there are organizations out there that specialize in applying RFID to business problems. It seems it is OK for them to go to a manufacturer of tags, but more often than not, the manufacturer is  incented to sell what is in its own bag without thinking about how that tool will be part of the longer vision or the final solution. A systems integrator should not choose hardware based on quantities, quotas or brand. A systems integrator is looking for the best solution long-term.

RFID Journal: How often do you have to fix messes?

Zielinski: Five to 10 percent of the time, when we are brought to the table by a manufacturer, there's a systems integrator that has missed the mark, and we are there to undo what they did. It could be that they put together a near-term solution instead of a long-term solution, or that they used the wrong technology for a long-term solution.

A quarter of the time or more, we are given, "Here's the solution I want" from our client, and we have to wipe the whiteboard clean and ask how they got to that solution. We have to ask really well-thought-out questions, driving them all the way back to the problem itself.

The rest of the time, companies come to us at the beginning, with the business problem identified, and they are looking to us for the solution. We work with them on tactical approaches and strategies, so they have a layer of visibility that wasn't there before. I also want to make sure they make the best use of the data they gather.

RFID Journal: What are your best words of advice to anyone interested in an RFID solution?

Zielinski: Not everyone needs RFID. Sometimes another technology can solve their problem with less disruption and more immediate results. But everyone needs to improve quality and throughput, and if RFID is the tool that helps them get there, then it is great.

Here are four pieces of advice I give all businesses, large or small, which are considering using RFID:

• Understand the real objective. It is not to read a tag from 2 feet away.

• Communicate the objective, not the means to achieve the objective—that is getting ahead of the problem.

• Be able to really articulate that business objective and how you got there. We will ask "Why?" until they understand.

• Solve the small problems first, then move on to the bigger challenges. It may not be as exciting as solving a whole bunch of problems on the first try, but it is easier to get the executives on board if we talk iterations, with smaller investments and shorter paths to success. After a problem is solved in the local environment, then we can talk about rolling it out to the next factory or a different country.