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RFID 601: Successful RFID Implementation

January, 2012

You’ve read about RFID (radio frequency identification) and seen it in action. You’ve decided it’s right for your library system and you’d like to start moving toward implementation. How do you decide what kind of RFID system works for you? How do you go about funding and implementing that system? And how do you protect your investment?

Designing and implementing your RFID system is not a trivial undertaking, but libraries in large and small communities have found that the effort is easily outweighed by the benefits. And the skills most needed for success—the ability to research thoroughly, to listen closely to customer needs and to communicate clearly—are the skills that library professionals practice every day.

A typical implementation can be segmented into four steps:

Step 1: System Design

Customers and librarians like RFID because it feels effortless: the system is reliable, effective and unseen. It operates in the background, integrated seamlessly into their daily activities.

As is often the case, that sense of effortlessness is the product of real effort by the librarians and board members who plan and implement the RFID system. Often, they will be working closely with customers, fellow librarians, sales consultants, architects and contractors. But they must oversee the research and analysis. They must define the goals for their new system and make the final decisions about scope, budget and timing.

As librarians or board members take their first steps in designing an RFID system for a new or existing facility, four rules of thumb can be helpful:

Know what you do today. A well-designed RFID system must take into account present operations. The library should begin with a snapshot of current circulation, the frequency with which customers process their own items, the time it takes for an item to be reshelved after it has been returned, the percentage of items that are lost, and typical staffing levels. In addition, staff should generate a "process map" that details how items flow in and out of the library, how librarians spend their time, current security methods, and the current methods for inventory and shelf reading. Details about the Integrated Library System (ILS) should be included: how is the ILS being used and what reports are being generated (such as lost, missing and "claims returned" items). This information will also be helpful when presenting plans to funding agencies. This overview should also encompass the "pain points" of current operations. What doesn’t work today? What do your customers think needs to be improved?

Know what you want to do. For many libraries, goal setting can be a daunting task. It requires an assessment of needed improvements in current operations and an estimate of the community’s future needs and expectations. Libraries will sometimes draw on plans and reports from other community institutions (such as a city or county planning committee) for details about population growth projections and other trends. While specifics can vary widely, many libraries believe that circulation will grow (in some cases, dramatically so) without a corresponding increase in budget. Any vision of future operations should include a discussion of security requirements, particularly as they address frequently stolen electronic media such as CDs and DVDs.

Learn about the technology. Board members and staff need to educate themselves about RFID capabilities, tag standards and, especially, tag reliability. Sales consultants can be helpful, but their information should be supplemented with research that draws on other sources, conversations with other libraries about system performance, speed of conversion, "applied tag" costs and vendor performance. Trade shows can provide an overview of available products. Most vendors will also send equipment to a library where staff can give it a hands-on trial.

Design a system, not a shopping list. The components of an RFID system must be integrated with each other, with the library’s ILS and with the library’s building(s). Warranties should cover the system, not discrete pieces of equipment. When writing specifications, the library staff should define functional (not technical) requirements; specify a performance characteristic, for example, rather than a tag frequency. Many vendors will provide checklists to assist in the process of writing specifications. These can be useful, but staff should insist on a detailed rationale for each requirement. Nothing should appear in the specifications unless staff is comfortable explaining how it adds value.

Step 2: Acquiring Funds

Often, the decision to implement RFID is part of a larger decision to renovate existing facilities or build new ones. If so, funding might already be in the budget. Sometimes, the adoption of RFID technology is driven by the desire to continue high quality service despite increasing circulation and static staff levels; in such instances, a separate funding request must be made.

In any case, librarians will be expected to justify the investment in RFID. They should begin with a preliminary quote (available from most vendors) to establish an approximate cost for the system. The justification should also reflect the library’s current value to the community (using data collected in the System Design phase) and the benefits that would be provided by an RFID system. (For a complete discussion on the benefits of RFID, see RFID 401.)

A reasonably thorough cost-benefit analysis will usually reveal that an RFID system will pay for itself within a few years. Contact your local sales consultant for more information.

The acquisition of new funding will vary depending on the library’s governance and the board’s preferences. The likelihood of funding can be improved by developing a range of proposals, including a complete system and one that could be mounted on a limited budget (in which, for example, automated materials handling equipment is designed-in but not funded). A competent vendor should be able to design a system that can be staged, so that components can be integrated whenever circumstances allow new purchases.

The search for funding will require research into the applicable regulatory requirements. While rules governing public sector financing are becoming more flexible, this remains a complex arena and there can be rigid rules about shifting funds from operations to capital investments in new equipment. In some instances, a Request for Proposal (RFP) is required. Alternative funding strategies include leasing the system.

Step 3: Select a Vendor

Library professionals will usually start talking to vendors early in the project’s design phase. These vendors can provide initial guidance on the benefits of RFID systems, the process of mapping current operations and common strategies for planning and implementation. Obviously, these vendors will also supply product information and budget estimates.

Eventually, the library must evaluate competing vendors and select a partner for its RFID project. Procedures for selecting a vendor vary, depending on city or county regulations and the nature of the project. In some cases, funds are allocated before design begins; in others, funding cannot be approved without a specific vendor’s formal bid.

As with any other significant investment, selecting an RFID supplier can be a complicated decision. Several rules of thumb can help guide libraries:

Compare the warranties. The guarantees offered by vendors can differ considerably. Libraries should review warranties for equipment and tags. Special attention should be paid to tag warranties. Some suppliers will offer low-cost solutions based on tags designed for relatively short-term use (such as retail applications). A tag designed for library use should be warranted for the life of the item to which it is attached. (For a discussion of tag quality and reliability, see RFID 401.)

Compare certifications. In many countries, government agencies ensure compliance with health, safety and environmental requirements. In other countries, independent certification organizations perform this function. In the United States and some other countries, the premier certification organization is Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which checks for compliance with electrical product safety regulations. Libraries in the U.S. should be aware that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations stipulate that equipment be certified by UL or a similar organization. (For a discussion of third-party certification, see RFID 301.)

Compare written commitments. Product warranties are only part of an RFID vendor’s responsibilities to the customer. In addition, the vendor should commit in writing to periodic system upgrades that reflect advances in technology or library science. Libraries should expect their supplier to guarantee in writing that it will have available—in a timely manner—the upgraded software that tags and equipment will need in order to comply with any new global standard. During the transition to a new standard, most libraries will experience a period during which their collections contain both "legacy" RFID tags (that are not compliant) and new tags that reflect the new standards. Libraries must be assured that their RFID system will remain functional during this transition period, which could last for months or years. (For a discussion of emerging standards, see RFID 301 or, for more detail, RFID 501.)

Seek independent endorsements. Vendors are not always the best judges of how well their equipment performs, or of their after-sale service and reliability. Ask for a list of their customers from the past two to five years. (More recent customers can report on current equipment features and performance; older customers can speak to system reliability and service.) Most libraries are very willing to discuss their RFID experiences and may be able to offer valuable suggestions about design and implementation.

Compare service contracts. A qualified vendor should be able to offer a long-term service contract. This is an additional cost, but most libraries find it a wise investment. (Without a service agreement, most libraries would need to draw on "rainy day" funds; often these don’t exist or can’t be applied for repair purposes.) Make sure that the service contract spells out expectations: ideally, these should include remote assistance for simple software problems and a guarantee of timely on-site support (by a factory-trained technician with a stock of commonly needed parts) for more difficult problems. On-site support will vary depending on the library’s location. A vendor should be able to detail specific response times for specific geographic regions; a reasonable expectation for most locations is on-site response within eight business hours. The vendor should also be able to show statistics on the number of service requests that are completed in a single visit by the technician; an 80 percent first-visit success rate is reasonable.

Step 4: Conversion and Startup

Once you’ve settled on the design, the funding and the vendor, the gratifying work of physical installation can begin.

Begin site planning as soon as possible. Thoroughly analyze your site and determine your new workflow; this will help identify where you will place power sources, automated materials handling and self service equipment, security gates and the circulation desk. To avoid unnecessary costs, make sure that you have completed these tasks before implementation begins. To assist you in this effort, most vendors will provide a project manager on request.

Create a detailed implementation plan. Determine your goals for tagging, including the number of items to be tagged and a schedule for conversion training and completion. This will require decisions on the resources that will be devoted to this activity and the strategy that best fits your operation and your community’s expectations. Some libraries decide to close their doors and undertake a mass tagging, so that the conversion is over in a few days. Others prefer to tag as time and staffing allow.

Prepare the organization. Implementing an RFID system will require changes in your organization. Managing that change begins with a thorough explanation of what the new system entails, how it will improve staff members’ work and allow them to perform more valuable services, and how it will improve customer satisfaction. Clarify how it will impact staffing levels and assignments; this is often a source of unnecessary concern for employees. Then begin formal training on the system.

Prepare the community. One of the joys of implementing an RFID system is the reaction that most library customers have. Because of your attention to implementation, most of your customers will find the experience to be easy, fast, and intuitive. Nevertheless, first-time users will often need some assistance. These contacts present an excellent opportunity for explaining the benefits of the community’s investment in RFID. Some customers will need repeated explanations and encouragement to try the new system and learn the new technology. Over time, this need will decrease, but most libraries accept that some customers rely on and expect traditional service from their librarians.

The Final Phase: Do What You Do Best

Library professionals are generally familiar with the implementation of productivity-enhancing technology. Many have participated in the transition to bar-coded circulation systems, computerized records integration and automated materials handling. Those who are new to library science typically expect that their careers will be marked by further transformations in the collection and distribution of information.

When viewed in this context of technological progress, RFID implementation is hardly unique. Many of the steps are similar to the implementation of any new technology. Many of the benefits are similar. And, as with the adoption of any new technology, RFID implementation has one unavoidable drawback: time spent on implementation pulls librarians away from the direct customer contact that originally attracted them to the profession.

This redirection is usually short-lived, and it brings its own rewards. The investment of time and effort ensures that the library will eventually implement a system that functions reliably, that serves the community, and that allows library professionals to concentrate on the work they do best.

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