Jeff Hudson, CEO, SLS RFID (Tech Partner) and Den Burnside, Chairman & CTO
The year is 2005. Dr. Walter D. Burnside, fresh off his seven-year stint as Director of the ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL), The Ohio State University, received a request from a member of the EPC global technical committee to help solve the poor read rates seen at Walmart as they were the first to attempt using RFID in a retail environment. At the time, the retail giant was trying to implement radio frequency identification (RFID) in a few of its distribution centers and stores. To successfully integrate RFID, a tracking technology intended to improve inventory management, one has to integrate a system utilizing tags, readers, and antennas—the components needed to encode, capture, and transmit/receive digital data via radio waves.
Despite their best efforts in the early years, RFID teams hit a major “read rate” stumbling block, for which Dr. Burnside wanted to determine the root cause for item-level applications. Upon investigation, Dr. Burnside, a recipient of the prestigious NASA Distinguished Public Service Award for developing complex radio frequency-driven radar systems for the U.S. military and NASA, was asked to improve the read rate for tagged items placed on metal retail shelves such as used in Walmart.
In trying to solve the “read rate” problem, Dr. Burnside and his colleague at ESL, Dr. Robert Burkholder, invented the wave®
antenna, a unique solution designed explicitly for item-level RFID. With the wave antenna, Drs. Burnside and Burkholder, proved to retailers that it was indeed possible to obtain a very high read rate for every tagged item on their store’s shelves, even on metal shelves. Unfortunately, the high cost involved in tagging every item in the inventory led to the premature end of Dr. Burnside’s initial RFID project.
The Birth of RFID Tag-Free Solutions: smartShelf
A few years later, Dr. Burnside, upon realizing that a tag-free RFID solution was the need of the hour, founded newave Sensor Solutions. Using his patented wave®
antenna platform as a building block, Dr. Burnside & Co. designed smartShelf, an IoT solution that enables retailers and store managers to monitor merchandise availability in real time. The patented smartShelf— which in many cases can be retrofitted and installed within hours—provides authorized smart devices access to data such as inventory conditions, shelf movement, replenishment needs, and shoplifting activity.
In the aftermath of the retail shelf project, Dr. Burnside knew that stamping out additional costs involved in item-level tagging was Priority No. 1. To accomplish the same, newave began placing the tags not on the items, but on the product dispenser trays, with each tray categorized by a unique barcode label that is attached to the dispenser tray pusher. This barcode number defines the header information stored within the RFID tags mounted on each individual tray. Thus, during the installation, the products are scanned as well as the pusher barcode to relate the two. Then, these trays are barcode-scanned from the upper left to lower right of the shelving system, which precisely defines the product planogram store-by-store.
By using smartShelf, retailers now have an RFID solution that provides accurate real-time shelf inventory capability without requiring item-tagging
Further, when a product is removed from the shelf, the spring of the pusher contracts and exposes a previously covered tag, which is then immediately read by newave’s patented Nobel reader. When a customer-defined low stock level is reached, a replenishment alert is immediately sent to store personnel.
After years of research and development, newave assembled the requisite reader, software, data compression techniques, and the overall technology, to design cost-effective and optimal solutions for the budding retail industry. “We developed the perfect solution, a unique reader, with an embedded small computer, thereby generating the combined power of a laptop and an RFID system. Since the Nobel reader can control, process, and compress data, the bandwidth usage is tremendously reduced, and the data only needs to be sent to the newave analytic server at a significantly reduced rate,” says Dr. Burnside.
"Our vision is to expand RFID solutions more deeply into the supply chain, at a best possible pace"
According to Barry Burnside, member of the board at newave, the RFID solutions provider has designed its solutions to cater to the retail industry’s out-of-stock (OOS) predicament. A universal dilemma, OOS leads to issues such as loss of customer loyalty, reduced impact of marketing campaigns, and exhaustion of time and resources. With smartShelf, however, retailers can enable timely restocking at their stores. “Traditionally, inventories were controlled by adding more items, to avoid an out-of-stock situation. That model grew to be highly inefficient, and Walmart and many other retailers wanted to address this issue knowing that the system needed an overhaul. By using smartShelf, retailers now have accurate real-time shelf inventory capability,” says Burnside.
An Analytics-Driven Approach
The team at newave follows a meticulous process before undertaking a new project. It’s only after determining a client’s existing inventory monitoring system and technology capability, that newave proceeds with designing a specific solution to enable the prevention of an OOS. To do so, newave must be made aware of what the customer considers a low stock/restock level, and the corresponding real-time restock information can be sent to any of the client’s authorized smart devices. In what can be viewed as another strategy to minimize OOS, newave, through its smartShelf solution, ensures that each store’s planogram is in full compliance. This way, the smartShelf data can enable planogram optimization, and that the fastest selling items on the shelf have ample space. By utilizing actual sales and OOS data, smartShelf also recommends its customers to make necessary adjustments to optimize the planogram, even store-by-store. smartShelf can also greatly assist in deterring retail theft. The client defines what amount of instantaneous product movement could be a theft. When this occurs, an instant alert can be sent to Loss Prevention personnel.
After newave’s patented Nobel RFID Reader collects, processes, and compresses inventory and other shelf-related data, the analytic server kicks into high gear. With data being secured in the server, it sends customizable Excel reports to authorized smart devices. Seeing that the data needed by a district manager could vary from the report sought by a regional manager, newave has built in a processor that accumulates ‘Fundamental Business Data.’ “A district manager responsible for 100 stores requires data of all 100 stores on a spreadsheet, based off his own specifications. We ensure that every customer gets the data in the format and at the frequency they desire,” says Burnside.
newave’s revolutionary tag-free RFID technology has given rise to infinite possibilities. The natural progression? The realistic possibility of RFID being integrated as an all-inclusive supply chain inventory tracking system, instead of operating just at the item-level. Since the smartShelf can work with both tagged and untagged items, RFID tagging will ultimately function like barcodes but with much greater capability. According to Jeff Hudson, CEO of SLS RFID, a long-time technology partner of newave, RFID solutions will be just as effective at every link of a supply chain, including transportation, warehouse management, so on, and so forth. “Since smartShelf offers the opportunity to move onto the shelf level quickly, retailers can now drive expansion in multiple categories. Our vision is to expand solutions more deeply into the supply chain, at a best possible pace,” says Hudson.
The Canadian Cigarette Challenge
In Canada, a recent legislation mandated retailers and manufacturers to move to plain packaging of cigarettes within the next year. This change means it will be substantially more challenging to manage and monitor inventory. When newave stepped in to address this particular Canadian client’s woes, customized automated Excel reports generated by smartShelf revealed that OOS was the primary cause for over a 13 percent loss in sales. Upon further testing in retail stores, manufacturers came to the conclusion that smartShelf reduced OOS by over 60 percent, within the first two months of installation.
Much akin to the client from Canada, newave has to its credit, many customers in the retail industry who continue to recognize the company for its prowess as an IoT solution provider that is defined by two exemplary attributes: their ability to create superior, RFID-related technology, and their design capability to devise proprietary solutions—which wasn’t possible in yesteryears.
Over the last decade, newave has found its footing in the retail landscape, with as many as five patented merchandising solutions, which include the likes of smartShelf, newave Smart Inventory Management System (SIMS), Plug and Play Portals, and the aforementioned wave®
antenna platform and Nobel reader. The development of the wave®
antenna platform was financially supported by Wistron NeWeb Corporation (WNC), a global industry leader in the design and manufacturing of advanced wireless communication products. While newave owns exclusive commercialization rights for North America, newave and WNC jointly hold the rights for all RFID patents and share commercialization rights for the rest of the world (ROW).