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Maintaining and supporting RFID systems


Bret Kinsella | ODIN Technologies bret@ODINtechnologies.com


Last month the U.S. Air Force awarded ODIN a three-year contract to monitor and support its nearly 150 passive RFID readers located at seven Air Force Bases and one Naval Air Terminal. Two years ago, this type of award was rare. Now, it is a growing trend.

Long-term support contracts are indicative of maturing technology categories. The Air Force has had RFID solutions in place for several years, which are now considered production systems requiring consistent and sustained support to ensure uptime. An ad hoc approach supporting sites spread across five time zones was insufficient. This structured approach is something we are seeing more of today. Until recently, it was difficult to convince many end users to focus on long-term RFID support planning. Without reliable mean-time-to-failure data, many users decided to just roll the dice. The result: many organizations were reluctant to shut down old systems and fully utilize the RFID solution, not knowing how or if it would be supported. Too little focus on full RFID lifecycle support led to underutilization and a barrier to adoption. Every reported issue required technicians to go onsite, leading to delays and extra costs.

Things have certainly changed. Itís becoming an accepted fact that support should be one of the first items on your priority list when considering an RFID system. The technology is more reliable than ever, but you have to prepare for routine maintenance and occasional issues. This is no different than planning for the adoption of any other operationally critical technology. And, it is important from both an operational standpoint as well as for building confidence in the users of RFID systems as reliable, stable operating capabilities.

Five years ago, the only support options were extensive in-house training or contacting costly white van service from experienced technicians. While both of these approaches remain, a number of remote support options exist today. For example, ODIN software can access readers remotely, allowing experienced RF engineers to troubleshoot issues quickly. Other software and hardware vendors are experimenting with similar capabilities because they reduce issue resolution time, support cost and can maximize system uptime.

There are several types of issues you need to be prepared to address. The most common issues we see that affect RFID system performance are network outages. In this situation, the RFID system is still operating, but the network is not carrying the data to the back-end software. These issues are typically resolved when the network comes back online, but you may have lost the reads that took place in the interim. Ideally, you are using read buffering, which allows the tag reads to be stored for a short period and automatically synchronized with your software when the connection is restored. If not, you need to first have an alert generated so you know the network is down and you need to go back and recapture the tag reads to clean up your data. Buffering is much better if you can put it in place.

Another common issue is the incidence of missed or no reads. The root cause may originate from a number of different sources. Some readers have memory buffering issues that simply do not allow any more tag reads to be captured. This can often be resolved by clearing the buffer or rebooting the reader Ė ideally remotely, by direct connection if there is not remote connectivity. Other issues could be loose cable connectors, damaged antennas or cables, electrical shorts in the reader or someone simply unplugging the power supply. The resolution to these items it fairly simple as long as you can diagnose the root cause.

The most obvious issue is physical damage. This is often easy to see, although it can require equipment replacement and a complete re-installation and tuning. When this occurs, you will benefit greatly from solutions that allow reader hot-swapping and the existence of as-deployed configuration specifications. Unfortunately, these are both rare today since most users do not ask for them. However, the capabilities to enable them exist and can be a solid addition to your RFID system support strategy.

With any support system, knowing there is an issue is the first step. You canít resolve issues you havenít identified. When you design your RFID system, keep this in mind. Triggers and alerts that will enable you to identify problems are a good start. From there, it is about having processes and capabilities to resolve issues and maximize uptime. A coordinated strategy for maintenance and support is a must whether you start from the beginning or put it in place after you complete deployment.

The U.S. Air Force support contract is another example of RFIDís maturation: a long-term commitment to a consistent and robust support approach. RFID end users no longer need to be pioneers when it comes to support. That should make it easier to plan for from the beginning.

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