Technologies Of The Year -- RFID In A Box

Manhattan Associates designs a pre-configured solution.

Even before Wal-Mart sent its infamous memo to suppliers to jump on the RFID (radio frequency identification) bandwagon or else, Manhattan Associates was working on an RFID solution that would enable companies to bid farewell to barcodes. "We built the product before Wal-Mart made the line in the sand," says Greg Gilbert, product management, RFID. "There was some risk in doing that, but our gut was telling us that this was the next big thing." The solution, RFID in a Box, is a bundled package of RFID technology from Alien Technology Corp. and supply-chain-execution applications and professional services from Atlanta-based Manhattan Associates. Other partners in the project include Zebra Technologies, which provides the RFID-enabled printers, and Printronix Inc., which provides an optional RFID Smart Label printing solution. The pre-configured "box" contains two servers. One server runs RFID middleware and the other server runs an application called Trading Partner Management, which allows customers to enable their suppliers to remotely generate RFID tags and apply them to goods. The package also contains five Alien Technology RFID readers, 50,000 RFID tags (converted to 4-inch-by-6-inch shipping labels) and five Electronic Product Code printers to print the RFID tags. "We really [wanted to] bring together an integrated RFID solution because our customers were overwhelmed with the number of choices that they thought they had to make," says Gilbert. "Who do I go to for RFID tags? Who do I talk to for RFID readers? How do I get the tags onto the packages? What middleware do I use? How does all this work together? It almost created a stalemate in the market where people were afraid to move forward because there were so many questions." Adds Eric Peters, senior vice president of products and strategy at Manhattan, "The direction we were getting from our customers was 'Hey man, put this thing together and make it work.' To date I think we are the only ones out here that have offered a solution that is componentized like this. It is geared toward retailers and also suppliers to retailers and it's geared toward anybody because you get to mix and match so many components depending on where you are at in the supply chain." The solution, which is currently available, has been bought by a number of companies. However, Manhattan isn't at liberty to mention names due to the fact that many companies feel that the RFID solution gives them a competitive edge. Talking with customers helped Manhattan Associates jump ahead of the Wal-Mart edict, but Peters and Gilbert also attribute their RFID readiness to being members of the Auto-ID Center, a partnership of nearly 100 global companies and five research universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The premise of the partnership: set standards for the RFID industry. "Participating in the hardware and software action group committees translated into knowledge that we put into our solution," says Peters. "And it gives us lead time in the market because we [have] access to research and direction from the Auto-ID Center anywhere from three to five months before the general public does." However, as with many other great products, serendipity plays a big part. "I like to think that we are smart people, but I also believe that it was good luck and timing in some of this stuff," says Peters. "We built a solution that fit our world, the window we look out. Fortunately that's the same window Wal-Mart decided to look out."

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