August 10, 2004

Integrated Device Could Ease RFID Processing

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

A large French electrical equipment supplier on Tuesday introduced a way for suppliers to more seamlessly integrate RFID capabilities into existing equipment, which could lessen the supplier burden and possibly accelerate and broaden RFID adoption.

TCP Open, the approach unveiled by $9 billion Schneider Electric, allows a supplier's PLC (programmable logic controller) automation systems to communicate directly with various third-party TCP devices, including radio frequency tag readers, printers, bar-code readers and other PLCs.

One of the most significant stumbling blocks with full-fledged RFID (radio frequency identification) retail efforts has been supplier compliance. When a major retailer such as Wal-Mart demands RFID compliance, it often puts suppliers in a financial bind as they must somehow integrate the new technology into their operations.

Today's typical approach requires a gateway to act as an interpreter between RFID devices, said Robb Dussault, product marketing manager at Schneider Electric.

"This separate function was yet another thing to have to integrate and to potentially debug. It was another point of failure," Dussault said. "We've actually embedded the language that these RFID tag readers talk into our automation platform, so now you don't need this external piece."

For many supplier warehouses, distribution centers and depots, the PLCs do a lot more than scan pallets and cartons and make routing and labeling decisions. They also play an integral manufacturing role, such as activating conveyor belts and running printers, Dussault said.

Using an object-oriented approach, TCP Open creates function blocks that can be written once and reused. The object automatically opens an Ethernet communication channel to an RF (radio frequency) tag reader, records the data and then closes the channel.

"The beauty of the function block is its simplicity. With other PLCs, you'd have to add gateways, RS232 ports and intermediate software to communicate with the RF tag readers," Dussault said. Schneider's proprietary hardware includes "a built-in Web server, Ethernet port and TCP/IP, which enables direct, high-speed connectivity."

The vendor says that suppliers could realize large savings both in terms of reduced hardware costs and reduced labor needs for maintenance and system integration. One Schneider customer—who has been working with the TCP Open package for two months—said Dussault's goal is the right one, but that the software isn't quite plug-and-play yet.

Brad Galles is the process control supervisor at Wells' Dairy Inc., which supplies its Blue Bunny ice cream and yogurt line to Wal-Mart. "We like the open architecture and the flexibility of it, and that we can talk with a lot of other equipment through Ethernet," Galles said.

"But they need a lot of improvements to it. We find it convenient, but there is certainly work involved. Initially, [there is the need to write] a lot of code to be able to make the connection with other equipment. After that, though, you can put it into a function block and you can keep recalling that function block, and that makes it very easy to work with."

A colleague of Galles', Wells' Dairy process control technician Jeff Koons, said the system's value is more evident when infrastructure changes happen.

"As you add more devices, it's pretty simple drag-and-drop," Koons said. "You just declare another instance of the function box, and then you give it the device's IP address and port and you're in business."

Koons added that the old serial-connection approach placed more bandwidth restrictions than did the Ethernet approach allowed by TCP Open.

One analyst tracking the RFID space said the Schneider effort will likely be well-received among major suppliers because most RFID attention has been focused on easing implementation for the retailer, not the supplier.

"RFID has been very lopsided. The retailers derive all of the benefits," said Chantal Polsonetti, a vice president of manufacturing advisory services at the ARC Advisory Group. "Schneider is in the automation business, and what they are doing is providing an easy, low-cost interface for manufacturing automation systems."

Polsonetti said she prefers Schneider's approach, which she said is truly automated, as opposed to some existing products that claim to be automatic but are actually manual, slap-and-ship systems.