Auburn University’s RFID Lab

The Epicenter for RFID Deployment Initiatives

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The promise of RFID in retail has been a long and winding road going back at least to the late 1990s when the Auto-ID Center was launched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Walmart was an early adopter of RFID in the early 2000s, seeing the benefits of RFID in tracking inventory moving through the supply chain. As part of their initiative, they worked with the University of Arkansas to set up an RFID Lab in 2005 to focus on retail use cases. In 2014, the RFID Lab moved to Auburn University in Alabama, where it remains today.

In the past two decades, the RFID Lab has become the global go-to authority on implementing RFID solutions in multiple industries, including retail. Brand Elverston, who has been involved with RFID throughout his loss prevention career with Walmart and now as principal at Elverston Consulting, sits on the Lab’s advisory board. He calls the Lab “the epicenter for RFID technology. There are other entities out there, but nobody nearly as robust and engaged with industry as Auburn’s team.”

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Testing and Certifying RFID Performance

One of the major functions of the RFID Lab is to bring together RFID inlay manufacturers (the companies that produce the RFID tags), suppliers who work with end users to deploy RFID systems, and end users like JCPenney, Bloomingdale’s, and Dillard’s to help ensure that the RFID tags needed for the retailers’ programs meet the necessary performance and quality levels.

To that end, the Lab created what they call “the ARC Program,” which is a test system and database that stores comprehensive performance data of in-development as well as currently available RFID tags.

Starting with end users, ARC identifies the performance and quality requirements (which the Lab calls a Spec) that an RFID tag needs to meet to perform reliably in a particular use case and deployment. As an example, a retailer’s use case may require RFID readers to be placed at a specific distance or angle to the RFID-tagged products to record the information.

These requirements are used to identify acceptable RFID tags and tagging practices within the ARC database to ensure that they will perform reliably in the deployment.

The requirement will help the suppliers who install the RFID systems clearly understand what end users are expecting. Suppliers are provided with information on RFID, lists of approved RFID tags, and proper tagging practices to ensure compliance.

Inlay manufacturers send new tags to ARC before they are released to the market. ARC measures the tag’s performance in its ARC chamber test environment, compares it to all the Specs, and adds it to the approved tag list if it meets a particular Spec’s requirements.

The ARC testing methodology is open and has been established through industry collaboration. The methodology is clearly defined, but continual assessment and enhancement input into the testing process is encouraged and incorporated in evolving revisions.

No vendor is excluded, but all vendors must have a certified quality manufacturing system (QMS) to be included in the program. The Lab does QMS audits for every new inlay manufacturer to ensure that they can deliver consistent quality products before their tags are tested.

Promoting RFID to Industry

Part of the mission of the Auburn RFID Lab is to communicate their research in RFID solutions to the industries they service, which are primarily retail, aviation, shipping, and quick service restaurants (QSR).

Another long-time RFID Lab advisory board member, James “Jamie” Kress, RFID solution sales and strategic consulting executive with Sensormatic Solutions, explained: “Early on, a lot of retailers were questioning whether RFID even worked, as opposed to how they would attain the value of RFID in their environment.”

He added, “The Auburn RFID Lab was a place where we could take customers to show them that there was a consistency of thought across how RFID could be deployed. It wasn’t a question of does it work, but how is it best deployed for each individual use case.” Kress believes that was a pivotal moment within the retail industry.

The first significant retail use case was accounting for inventory accuracy. Suppliers like Sensormatic Solutions, Checkpoint, Avery Dennison, and Zebra could take their customers to Auburn to speak to the Lab directors to hear how other retailers were using RFID to simplify and increase inventory accuracy. This became an even more compelling use case as retailers evolved to omnichannel marketing.

At this point, according to Kress, a visit to the Lab provided retailers with a playbook for how to tag, which type of tags to use, and the ideal placement of tags for each product category.

“Those playbooks became a really important tool for retailers to leverage so that their suppliers knew exactly how to deploy RFID tags on items,” he said.

Asset Protection Involvement

A relatively newer application is the use of RFID with “smart exits” for loss prevention. The Auburn Lab is looking at all the issues related to making sure tags on products are easily accessible for point-of‑sale accuracy and speed and that tags are well read at the exit either by a pedestal or in the ceiling. This is essential for validating that the products exiting the store went through the point-of-sale station.

At the 2024 National Retail Federation Big Show conference, Macy’s Vice President of Asset Protection Operations and Strategy Joe Coll talked about his team’s experience with RFID readers deployed at their stores’ customer and employee entrances: “That unlocked for us a level of data that we had never thought was, A, possible or, B, our teams could consume and make actionable strategies based on the data.” Coll added that had his team been invited to the table earlier in Macy’s RFID journey, they would have likely had significantly greater benefits earlier on.

“Having LP involved in the initial stages of an RFID deployment is really critical,” said Kress. “Even if loss prevention is something you might not get to for eighteen or twenty-four months, make sure an asset protection professional is at the table because you don’t want program design decisions now that will adversely affect your future loss prevention use case.”

Both Kress and Elverston believe the Auburn RFID Lab will play an important role going forward, helping retail asset protection teams consider the next use case that could benefit the retail enterprise.

Currently, there are over fifteen retailers working with the Lab, including Nordstrom, DICK’S Sporting Goods, H&M, Lowe’s, and T-Mobile, in addition to the other retailers mentioned in this article.

Getting Involved with the RFID Lab

The Auburn Lab hosts annual meetings besides individual supplier or retailer visits. The two‑day meetings include a one-day advisory board meeting with fifty-plus participants. The second day is a supplier source-tagging workshop with upwards of 300 attendees.

For more information about Auburn’s RFID Lab, contact Justin Patton, the RFID Lab director, at rfidlab@auburn.edu. Or visit the Lab’s website at rfid.auburn.edu.


Jack Trlica is the cofounder and former editor-in-chief of Loss Prevention Magazine. He retired from full-time work in December 2022 but continues to observe the industry from his homes in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Manzanillo, Mexico. He can be reached at jack.trlica@gmail.com.

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