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Ash Soni
Department of Operations and Decision Technologies

George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Tuesday, March 28, 2006

IU's Kelley School receives gift from Zebra Technologies for RFID lab

March 28, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- More and more "UPC" codes -- the product information bars that get scanned at a department store checkout -- are sharing the limelight with a complementary technology known as RFID.

Radio Frequency Identification technology, silicon-embedded "smart tags," is generally expected to be used right alongside Universal Product Codes as an enhancement to product tracking capabilities for the foreseeable future. Indiana University's Kelley School of Business was the first U.S. business school to create a working RFID educational model or lab two years ago. The recent gift of an RFID printer from Zebra Technologies will allow the Kelley School's undergraduate and graduate students to model the complete life cycle of a tag.

"We were able to design and read tags through a system, to develop interfaces to other systems, and to generate metrics, but until this gift, we were not actually able to produce the tags," said Daniel Conway, a visiting clinical associate professor at the Kelley School, who runs the school's RFID lab.

An RFID printer allows both UPC and EPC (Electronic Product Codes) codes to be integrated in a label, a technique that will be important as organizations rely more on EPC systems. The printer also enables automatic labeling.

"Having a printer that many companies use in their day-to-day operations will expose the Kelley students to real-world applications," said Ash Soni, professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Decision Technologies. "As a result, they will be better trained."

The Kelley School's RFID lab analyzes how RFID impacts supply-chain management. It includes several types of systems that involve antennae, EPC tags and reading devices that are hooked up to computers that store information. Students can experiment with the system in different ways to study, for example, how a transportation system gets products from warehouse to warehouse and ultimately into consumers' shopping carts.

An RFID system utilizes smart media, which incorporate a tag or inlay into a label that includes text, graphics and bar code information. Smart media potentially allow retailers to track items automatically, for the life cycle of the tag. Unlike bar codes, RFID technology does not require line of sight for identification. Smart media can hold data that can both identify a product and provide a history of places and processes an item has gone through.

"For example, RFID tags can track the temperature under which an item that requires cold storage was transported," said M.A. Venkataramanan, chair of undergraduate programs at Kelley and the Lawrence D. Glaubinger Professor of business administration. "That enables retailers to make sure items that require cold storage were kept at the proper temperature during shipping. This type of process improvement is one of the major reasons many companies are evaluating RFID technologies."

Some retailers, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Albertson's -- as well as the U.S. Department of Defense and several health-care providers -- now require their suppliers to incorporate RFID technology and smart media into their shipping operations to selected distribution centers. Other common uses of RFID technology include paying highway tolls automatically with a transponder on a car windshield and the theft-prevention scanners at the doorways of retail stores.

"RFID smart media can hold a great deal of data, which can be updated in real time, which makes them ideal in tracking operations," Conway said. "They can be used in applications from pallets to shipping containers to golden retrievers to elderly people who keep getting lost. There are also applications in homeland security, so there is big money chasing the technology."

A 2005 study by the Computing Technology Industry Association -- a global IT trade organization that develops certification processes for the IT industry -- found that the current supply of professionals skilled in RFID is too low to meet demand. Eighty percent of those surveyed said there are insufficient numbers of professionals skilled in technology. Kelley's ability to train undergraduate and graduate students in such a rapidly growing, emerging technology will be mutually beneficial for job-seeking students and the marketplace. "Since RFID technologies are in their infancy, this initiative will enable Kelley students to be at the leading edge of this emerging technology," Venkataramanan said.

Zebra Technologies offers ultra-reliable products backed with more than 35 years of successfully developing supply chain printing solutions. As a pioneer in RFID, supporting international development for nearly a decade, Zebra's goal is to help companies achieve successful RFID implementations. Zebra's RFID offerings include HF and UHF printer/encoders and a UHF print engine for print and apply systems. Zebra now offers UHF RFID multi-protocol printer/encoders for sale in 39 countries on five continents worldwide -- more than any other brand. With converting facilities in North America and Europe, Zebra also provides smart media to end users, offering the broadest selection of EPC UHF Gen 2 tags/inlays as well as HF inlays for closed loop applications.

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