Sun Products, Test Center Help RFID Take Flight

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based vendor offers everything from RFID tags, meters and middleware software to testing facilities and design assistance.

While many vendors provide RFID tags and readers for various markets, few can match Sun in delivering a real-world deployment in large warehouses. Sun's RFID solution consists of meters that process information from RFID tags on boxes, along with middleware software to process information captured by the readers. The middleware architecture also provides suggested implementations for specific markets that can be customized for particular customer needs.

Sun's RFID middleware has two components: Sun Java System RFID Event Manager and Sun Java System Information Server. After a tag is read, the captured data is sent to the Event Manager, which manages all data coming from every reader in a network. The Event Manager combines data into a stack and provides realtime information filtering. As it is being captured, it eliminates duplicate reads and errors caused by the misreading of tags.

An RFID reader is a rudimentary device and is only designed to send radio signals in the vicinity of a tag and receive an RFID signal back. Because RFID readers can read up to 100 tags per second on a continuous cycle, Event Manager not only has to sort out duplicate data, but also figure out which tags have errors before passing the data to the Information Server. When collecting RFID information from entire containers or large palettes, Event Manager collects subsets of the recorded data. The information is combined and compared with other data streams to check for errors and completeness.

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After the data is passed to the Information Server, Sun provides open-ended interfaces with back-end ERP, supply chain management and warehouse management systems. These interfaces require custom-development work by either Sun's professional services or systems integrators to integrate data stored in Sun's RFID middleware. For the most part, Sun depends on global system integrators to provide business process re-engineering with its middleware.

In Sun's RFID test centers, partners and customers can run functional tests to see how to best integrate Sun's hardware and middleware with any other system. Because the test centers are fully operational, customers can also perform real production runs. Sun also uses its test centers to process shipments for customers that do not yet have their own RFID systems set up. Once a particular process is set up for a customer in its test lab, Sun will certify it to ensure it will work once it is transferred to the customer's warehouses.

Depending on a deployment, some customers only rely on a portion of an RFID network to reduce costs. Distributors or vendors with limited needs usually follow mandates from large retailers such as Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, for instance, only requires its suppliers to add RFID tags that interact with its systems, but the suppliers are not required to use RFID tags internally. This process is called tag ship.

Tag ship products must have their bar codes reconciled with their electronic product codes (EPC). However, customers only have to convert their universal product codes (UPC) to RFID EPC numbers. Sun provides a simple conversion process at its test centers to assist in this.

For larger deployments, Sun uses large systems integrators to act as general contractors. The integrators install RFID readers throughout a customer's warehouse, including running wires, setting up antennas and integrating Sun's middleware. The installation of RFID meters and tags in customer warehouses is usually left to smaller local partners. The cost of using a Sun testing facility starts at $2,000 per day and is based on a customer's products and needs.