Friday, October 03, 2008

RFID for libraries: HF or UHF? (2)

Finally! With the European tender wrapped up, Autocheck Systems chosen as our partner, our RFID project is finally on its way. Now I can share a little more on the technology choice, following up on a post from, *cough*, one year ago.

When we started preparing, it looked like UHF had great potential to overcome some of the shortcomings of HF. To check whether this would work in practice, we organized a test in our stacks with UHF gear together with one of the major vendors. The test looked specifically at speed and reliability of inventory with a hand-held device. Unfortunately, the test resulted in a muddled answer: UHF showed great potential indeed, but needed more finetuning to get consistent results. Meanwhile, other HF vendors were showing that they were still able to tweak their systems further to reach speeds that, although not as high as UHF's, were still closing the gap to the point where reading with a hand-held was becoming notably faster than checking by eye.

Because of this, we decided not to specify HF or UHF in the tender. Instead, we asked for vendors to specify the performance of their system in terms of speed and accuracy for three scenarios. The lower the speed and the higher the accuracy, the more points could be earned, calculated on a logarithmic scale, starting from zero at 98% accuracy and a different number of seconds for each scenario, via hundreds or so for expected HF speeds to thousands for UHF.

To prevent a vendor bluffing, these numbers would need to be proven in a trial setup, failing which would lead to automatic exclusion. You could say that we tested the trust the vendors had in their systems.

Now I obviously can't give out details of the bids, but here's the general outcome. UHF vendors scored well, but at a relatively high price. And some - though not all! - HF vendors wrote in with a performance higher than expected for HF, though still below the UHF figures. The clear winner, Autocheck, was one of these high-performing HF vendors. They scored best on the combination of high HF performance with a very decent pricetag (needless to say, they were able to prove their performance figures).

So, an interesting outcome, not quite what we expected. A side effect is that it changed my opinion on the European tendering process. Yes, it is tedious, bureaucratic and can lead to unexpected results. But by tendering for functional requirements, rather than for a specific technology, we actually ended up with a good deal. That it was not what we expected is all the better. The trick is to properly investigate what you want and specify that, rather than how you want it done.