Sun Mulls Pilot to Test Own RFID Compliance

By Jacqueline Emigh  |  Posted 2004-10-26

Sun Mulls Pilot to Test Own RFID Compliance

Just like suppliers of other products, todays big IT vendors are figuring out how to cope with metallic environments, wireless interference and other challenges that can crop up in meeting customers RFID (radio frequency identification) mandates.

Sun Microsystems Inc., for example, is contemplating a new RFID pilot—possibly with one of its own suppliers—around its work as a U.S. DOD (Department of Defense) contractor.

As shown by its announcements this fall, Suns also been busy lately as a producer of RFID middleware and tools.

"But Sun is an equipment supplier, too, and we need to be compliant," Sam Liu, director of product management for RFID solutions at Sun, said in an interview with "We actually started down the RFID road a number of years ago, when we saw thered be a DOD mandate eventually."

But if there is a new RFID pilot in store for Sun, it actually will be the companys second one. Last December, Sun wrapped up a six-week internal RFID test, dubbed Project Sun Beam, at a manufacturing plant in Newark, Calif.

"We moved that one to a small section of the backroom floor because we wanted to make sure not to impact customer delivery," said Liu, whos slated to talk about lessons learned from Sun Beam as a speaker at this weeks Digital ID World show in Denver.

Fewer than a dozen Sun employees took part in the companys first pilot, and costs of the materials totaled less than $5,000, Liu told

Participants included production managers, manufacturing floor operators and members of Suns IT, engineering and client-services arms.

Sun trained manufacturing staff in how to use RFID for tracking inventory on some of the third-party components used in hardware subsystems.

Under traditional bar-code scanning methods, it had taken an operator up to two minutes to scan in information associated with I/O boards, chassis numbers and storage devices, he said. "But with RFID, we were able to lower that [number] by about 75 percent," he said.

Next Page: Lessons learned.

Lessons Learned

What did Sun learn along the way? The largest lessons were about how to successfully deploy RFID in a manufacturing production environment.

Sun uses wireless routers and cell phones in its manufacturing facilities, for instance. But in the internal trial, Sun managed to prevent wireless interference by running RFID equipment at the 915 MHz frequency level.

Metal proved more challenging, though. "We use lots of metal in our products and our [factory] carts. Theres metal in the parts. RFID tags are made of metal, too," according to Liu.

Essentially, the trouble with metal is that it blocks RF waves. "But we found that we could avoid these difficulties through proper selection and placement of the tags and antennae," he said.

Through trial and error, Sun discovered that linear RFID antennae worked better in the manufacturing setting than the radial variety, he said. Moreover, RFID tags used in the experiment needed to be carefully aligned, in "predictable locations" so that no tag blocked any of the others.

"Each [inventory session] involved several tags, and the reads were happening simultaneously," Liu said. "You also had to leave enough air space, so that none of the tags were surrounded by metal."

As another remedy, Sun engineers built their own RFID gateway for the initial pilot, using PVC plastic pipes rather than metal.

Under these conditions, results showed a read accuracy of 99.5 percent, with just one missed read.

Other hardware and software used in the first test included a single RFID reader with two antennae from Alien Technology; a Sun Enterprise 450 server; a Sun LX50 server; Suns EPC-compliant Java RFID System software; an Oracle relational database; a reporting module from Brio; and a GUI specifically created for production workers.

Click here to read about EPCglobal standards for RFID.

Now, before deciding whether to move ahead with a more extensive pilot—either with or without a partner—Sun needs to get a better idea of "exactly what we need to do to comply with the DODs RFID mandate," Liu said.

The Defense Department supports both EPC and ISO specifications for RFID, he said. "But its our conception that these specs will converge in the next generation of the EPC standard."

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