HP, Sun Launch RFID Test Centers

Each offers services to help companies comply with product tagging mandates

The RFID bandwagon continues to pick up steam, as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. launch test centers and other offerings to assist companies facing mandates from retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to adopt the technology.

Last week, Sun opened the doors to its 17,000-square-foot RFID Test Center in Carrollton, Texas, where companies can test and evaluate equipment in an environment that simulates the warehouses where they will deploy radio frequency identification tags and readers. Sun also plans to show users at the center how to get long-term business benefits by integrating RFID data with their back-end systems.

Meanwhile, HP today will announce the launch of its RFID Center of Excellence in Palo Alto, Calif., where customers can learn more about the vendor's RFID vision, build RFID road maps and conduct proofs of concept.

"It's a good place to show people what's possible, how things are going to look, what's going to pan out," said Salil Pradham, chief technologist for HP's RFID program.

HP plans to share lessons it has learned as a participant in the pilot that Wal-Mart launched last month with eight product manufacturers at select stores and one regional distribution center in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to Pradham. HP is affixing RFID tags to pallets, cases and boxes of PCs, printers, scanners, ink-jet cartridges and other products it ships to Wal-Mart.

HP's services unit also introduced a trio of new offerings: an RFID Discovery Service to help companies that are developing their own RFID strategies; an RFID Readiness Assessment that calls for a review of business processes, applications and infrastructures to produce a deployment road map; and an RFID Adaptive Starter Kit to help companies justify their investments through proofs of concept conducted at their own sites or at the HP center.

Building a Business Case

But internal experience with RFID had little to do with Conros Corp.'s selection of HP to help with a pilot project to ensure that its tags and readers work accurately, said CEO Navin Chandaria. He said he wanted to work with a company that cuts through bureaucratic red tape, gets excited about taking risks and understands both technology and business.

North York, Ontario-based Conros, a supplier of artificial fire logs and other products to Wal-Mart, is also working with HP on software that will help the company make use of the data generated by RFID systems, Chandaria added.

Although many industry analysts say Wal-Mart's suppliers are having a tough time building an internal business case for RFID, Chandaria said he has no doubt that his company's investment in RFID technology will be worth it.

Victor Garcia, the managing principal for HP's wireless and mobility program in Toronto, predicted that Conros will see a return on its investment within a year or two, based on increased inventory visibility and improved efficiencies.

Sun and Paris-based Capgemini announced last week that they are launching a jointly developed RFID service and product offering that is aimed at optimizing the full supply chain.

Juan Carlos Soto, director of advanced development at Sun, said Capgemini brings RFID expertise, and his company brings the systems to analyze, manage and process the data that will be generated.

But Jeff Woods, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said that if customers merely want to comply with the Wal-Mart mandate by taking a "slap and ship" approach, such partnerships and expensive offerings will fall apart. "You don't need $300-an-hour consultants to tell you how to label products," he said.

Woods claimed that most suppliers facing compliance deadlines from Wal-Mart have given up on finding an internal business case at this point.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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