Kansas University researchers have launched a project that they hope will establish the school as an expert in one of the fastest-growing areas of the retail industry.
Officials at KU's Information and Telecommunication Technology Center have opened a new $100,000 laboratory to test radio frequency identification tags.
The tags are expected to eventually replace the bar codes used on most of the products that consumers buy.
"We're excited about this because it allows us to work on a technology that is really exploding," said Dan Deavours, an assistant research professor who is overseeing the laboratory.
The radio tags are designed to send a signal to computers used by store managers, inventory specialists and others that will give them more up-to-date information about what's selling. For example, every time a product is removed from a shelf, the tag will send a signal. Deavours said that would allow store officials to more quickly restock shelves and better control their inventory, which could save retailers millions of dollars.
More advanced versions of the tag also will be able to detect whether the merchandise is too hot, too cold or has been dropped and damaged.
Companies like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy already have said they would begin requiring their suppliers to use more radio tag technology.
That has sent many companies scrambling to find a radio tag system that will work for them. KU's laboratory, called the RFID Alliance Lab, is designed to help.
Deavours said the lab, which employs one full-time researcher and Deavours, would test all the radio tag systems that are on the market. It will measure factors such as the speed and distance at which tags can be read. It also will examine how different types of products, such as metal cans, affect the tags' performance.
"We want to be sort of a Consumer Reports for RFID technology," Deavours said, referring to the magazine that tests a variety of products.
The laboratory is thought to be the first of its kind for the RFID industry. KU partnered with two private companies to create the laboratory -- Rush Tracking Systems, a Lenexa-based RFID company, and RFID Journal, a Hauppauge, N.Y.-based company that covers the industry.
Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal, said there was a real need for a laboratory that could provide companies with objective research on the systems.
"Right now, hundreds of companies are purchasing tags and readers and performing the same tests to determine which will work with their products," Roberti said. "This is time-consuming and wastes resources."
Deavours estimated that there were about 20 RFID systems on the market, but he said that number soon could exceed 100.
"We anticipate there will be an explosion of these products entering the market," Deavours said. "We want to position ourselves early as a reputable source of information."
Testing of products already has begun. The laboratory is expected to begin selling its findings to companies early next year.