Off-the-Shelf (and Rentable) RFID Solutions Proving on Point for Small and Mid-Sized Businesses

A proof-of-concept implementation between Zebra and itemit has hospital executives sold on a new approach to RFID asset tracking.

A nurse uses a dialysis machine
by Your Edge Contributor
January 31, 2022

This post was written by Alex C.Y. Wong, CEO, RedBite Solutions, a Zebra Independent Software Vendor (ISV).

Imagine a world where even as a small business you know:

●        where your assets are.

●        what projects they are required for.

●        how they are being used.

●        when they are due back.

●        who has them.

Now, let’s talk about how to make that world a reality.

RFID is Not as Far Out of Reach as One Might Think

The benefits of RFID are well documented when it comes to asset tracking and the technology is well understood. However, many believe these benefits are reserved exclusively for large organisations. That’s not true. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) will find the benefits of RFID technology are now within their grasp. They just need the right tools to utilise this technology at the same rate as larger organisations – and for a fraction of the cost.

Over the years, we have worked both with global blue-chip organisations designing bespoke RFID tracking systems as well as family-run, micro-organisations looking to adopt off-the-shelf RFID solutions to leverage the efficiencies and operational benefits. What we have learned is that no matter the organisation’s size or business focus or the types of assets being tracked, the fundamental objectives of such an implementation remain the same. The desire to know what assets are available, where they are located, their condition and status is shared by all.

However, even with the advances made in RFID over the years and the costs of readers and tags coming down, some small and mid-sized businesses have found it difficult to attain these benefits, defaulting instead to low-cost barcode/QR code tracking solutions. I’m happy to report this no longer needs to be the case.

The Benefits of RFID Asset Tracking Solutions for SMBs

RFID asset tracking solutions can generate a return on investment (ROI) for all companies and work in any vertical. This is because there are more ways you can now leverage RFID to know where your business’ assets are and how they’re behaving – and you no longer need expensive on-premise infrastructure to do so.

You’ll be able to track the location of IT assets, such as phones and laptops, or watch how tools and equipment move through a construction site. This visibility helps to reduce asset losses and allows a greater level of control over asset operations, making your life much easier overall.

It also generates a tangible ROI as you’re now losing fewer assets, finding lost assets, running clearer audits, and purchasing fewer duplicate assets. The cost of RFID software and hardware tends to be lower than the cost of recovering or replacing missing assets.

There are other, less tangible benefits of RFID asset tracking as well. For example, location tracking is entirely automated. This means assets don’t need to be physically accounted for, saving time and enabling teams to focus on other operations.

When the right RFID asset tracking software is incorporated into the solution, you can also automate the creation of an exportable fixed asset register, track, and log maintenance, and create, monitor, and export reports that can be used for accounting and insurance purposes, among other things. This improved visibility into operations benefits several business functions.

So, what do SMBs need to do to gain the benefits of RFID? Forget old notions about the technology and look (again) at the opportunities offered by modern RFID solutions.

Challenges No More: How RFID Has Evolved to Support SMBs

Before I talk about how RFID is helping SMBs like you today, let me address some of the key objections I hear from smaller organisations when I propose a rollout of RFID tracking solutions:

Objection 1: Complete RFID solutions can be expensive.

Though the RFID solutions industry is still largely fuelled by bespoke solutions created for big companies and custom solutions can quickly rack up to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of pounds to develop and deploy, there are now off-the-shelf, plug-and-play RFID solutions which do not require additional custom coding for each organisation. As a result, costs can be significantly reduced and – perhaps even more crucially for SMBs – the time to deploy is cut drastically, reducing the risks involved.

Some organisations are even beginning to offer the option to rent RFID readers and hardware. This is game-changing for smaller businesses as no heavy upfront investment is required to deploy an RFID asset tracking solution. There are even reader-to-cloud RFID data capture and storage options that allow you to get all the benefits of RFID without having to set up or manage any on-site infrastructure. Well, except for the RFID readers, but those could be handheld devices or even sled accessories that attach to your mobile computers.

Objection 2: Bespoke solutions are the norm in the RFID world.

What do bespoke solutions mean for an organisation? Firstly, you’d expect to get a very tailored solution that ticks all your boxes, which can be a huge appeal to an organisation with a specific set of criteria. However, what you also get are additional challenges in terms of high costs, lengthy timelines for delivery, and risk. Typically, SMBs need to see an ROI sooner than their larger counterparts as they have smaller risk appetites and tighter budgets.

In addition, bespoke systems often involve cooperation from third-party system integrators, which can add complexity to the process and deter SMBs from accepting the additional risk that comes with third parties.

The norm is changing, however, and these bespoke solutions will become recommended – or necessary – less frequently. Unlike a large enterprise that must frequently scale up asset tracking operations to suit a larger pool of assets, the constant ebbs and flows of new orders, and asset end-of-life operations, smaller enterprises have the flexibility to utilise an off-the-shelf software solution for a longer period. You can also use such solutions to see if RFID is right for you in a “try before you buy” manner. Once you have visibility into how the RFID solution is working in your business and what other capabilities you may need, then you can start thinking about a more custom solution – as business demands and budget allow.

Objection 3: Setup and deployment timelines are typically 6-18 months.

From our experience, when a business acknowledges an inefficiency and identifies a solution to reduce or eliminate this efficiency, there really is no time to waste. The sooner a solution can be deployed, the better.

Setup and deployment times for bespoke or custom RFID solutions can be lengthy. We’ve seen them range from 6-18 months, which we know can create a significant barrier to adoption for SMBs.

Off-the-shelf solutions will drastically reduce your setup and deployment times as, with helpful support from RFID experts, you’ll know where it’s best to put your readers and antennas. This will allow you to get set up in days as opposed to months.

If you opt for off-the-shelf software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings, you’ll also have the benefit of consistent support and expertise. Most likely, this will be at no extra cost as your software deployment will be non-bespoke and on a centralised cloud-server, meaning support, software updates, and assistance will be readily available. This may not be possible for a company with a myriad of decentralised RFID software deployments, and any quality-of-life updates or feature additions may incur additional costs.

In other words, off-the-shelf systems heavily reduce set up timelines and also guarantee you more assistance, support, and future readiness, further reducing overall risks and potential blocks.

Objection 4: Middleware adds complexity to the solution.

It’s true that middleware can act as a barrier for some SMBs, as it can add to overall system costs and create difficulties during the setup process. And one of the main barriers to RFID adoption is the technical expertise required for a successful deployment, which middleware can exacerbate. Multiple parties must coordinate development and implementation actions to ensure the end product is viable and effective.

But RFID systems are moving toward low and no-code deployments, so the need for middleware will soon be a thing of the past. Instead of middleware, technology can be housed in the reader itself. This software or agent acts as the intermediary between the software and hardware, as opposed to conventional middleware. This makes interfacing instant and easy. And without middleware, SMBs can “plug-and-play” their RFID systems, setting them up quickly and easily.

Objection 5: Security concerns are too daunting.

Security breaches are damaging to any business, but we know they can result in much more significant damage for SMBs with fewer resources to recover. It can also damage a brand, which can be catastrophic for an SMB still proving its viability in a market.

Without cloud-based operations, the interactions between RFID readers and software can be exploited and left open to DDoS attacks. These attacks, too, can halt all proceedings in an SMB, especially if it’s reliant on online sales and marketing.

Fortunately, recent developments in technology, in terms of both hardware and software, have kept security at the forefront. As the mitigations in middleware progress, security also automatically gets improved as there are more layers between critical data and the reader itself. In other words, the reader can be made more secure and less vulnerable to DDoS attacks.

As the technology continues to develop, security concerns will further minimise as the power of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and RFID readers will increase. This increase in power allows for more mitigations by way of security, as vulnerabilities can be further addressed and avoided.

Proof of Concept (and Real-World Results): How One University Hospital is Using an Off-the-Shelf RFID Asset Tracking Solution to Manage Equipment

In Zebra’s latest Global Healthcare Vision Study, hospital executives admitted multiple challenges in tracking supplies and equipment, with over two-thirds saying their staff spend too much time searching for the items they need. That’s why many hospitals are working with companies like RedBite Solutions and Zebra to implement RFID solutions that improve asset tracking.

One research hospital in Ireland first started by using Zebra handheld RFID readers and the itemit software to run audits on equipment moving around its premises. It has since scaled to fixed RFID readers also compatible off-the-shelf with itemit to track dialysis equipment and machines moving throughout the hospital – an implementation that was complete within three months. This speed of transformation is credited to two things:

1. The off-the-shelf itemit asset tracking software, which acts as a backend for asset information, and

2. Zebra Data Services for RFID, which removes the need for middleware.

Now, every time a tagged asset moves from one location to another, the change is logged automatically within the itemit system.

Plus, the hospital continues to benefit from the unique RFID capabilities handheld readers can provide, such as bulk auditing. To see if all the assets logged in a location are still there, all a staff member must do is press a button and pull the handheld reader’s trigger to either verify or dispute this. These operations save the hospital over two weeks a year locating equipment, which is time now spent elsewhere on other critical operations.

The overall aim of the deployment was to improve the hospital’s operations while saving time and money in the process. This deployment also acted as a proof of concept to show that off-the-shelf RFID asset tracking software is viable for the SMB market. As costs were kept low and timelines were reduced thanks to the off-the-shelf nature of the products, this project is considered a continuous success and wider rollouts across more departments in the hospital are either underway or planned for the near future.

The Future of RFID Solutions for SMBs

With hardware and software developments constantly evolving, the future of RFID solutions for SMBs is clear.

Easy-to-use, off-the-shelf, plug and play solutions like itemit instantly make RFID more viable, as deployment requires minimal liaison and allows for maximum efficiency. You can order your RFID hardware, purchase a software subscription, plug it in and start using it within a week – which is unheard of with bespoke solutions.

Any costs related to hardware are also avoided by the capability to rent RFID readers, run a proof of concept, view the effects the software has on the business, and make an informed, data-driven decision that is much closer to home than a comparison to other businesses' ROI. And this type of solution will continue to save SMBs money by automating operations and maintaining a log of which assets a business owns, where they are, and how they’re behaving throughout a building.

So, if you thought RFID was only for large organisations with big budgets, it’s time to think again!

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Full Disclosure:

As of now, itemit is the only system you can purchase off-the-shelf with a plug-and-play model for fixed RFID asset tracking, and Zebra is the only company currently offering fixed readers in a lease model (that we know of). Therefore, the partnership between itemit and Zebra is the first to make RFID both functional and affordable for both SMBs and global enterprises!

You can read more about the success we’ve had at the research hospital in this story.

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Your Edge Contributor
Zebra will occasionally publish insights from members of our partner community, our customers and other subject matter experts across the global industries we serve on the Your Edge blog. Background information about each individual author can be found at the bottom of their contributed blog post.
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