Now that you have been armed with your selection criteria, you need a basic segmentation of the primary vendor categories to help you with your final selection. Note that many vendors offer solutions that fall into several of these categories.
Tag and Reader Vendors
There is a variety of RFID tag and reader vendors in the market today. Many of these vendors have been in this business for several years, and some for a couple of decades. Whether they are large or small, they often have a successful record of accomplishment in the areas where RFID technology has been applied for quite some timefor example, livestock tracking, toll collection, access control, and factory floor automation. Many offer specialties in specific industries such as livestock. With the opportunity of applying RFID in the supply chain, many new tag and reader vendors have entered the market in the past few years. These vendors generally support EPCglobal standards and offer UHF tags and readers. Some of the older vendors have also started offering EPC-based products. Although many vendors in this category offer both tags and readers, some specialize in building tags or readers only, often for very specific markets such as rugged tags for automobile assembly applications.
RFID Middleware Vendors
RFID middleware is generally most applicable for supply chain applications of RFID. Therefore, RFID middleware products and vendors have been around for only a few years. Prior to the entry of RFID middleware products, most functions performed by today's middleware were customized to fit the specific needs of RFID applications. Because these applications were typically simpler to implement (compared to supply chain applications), many of the sophisticated features of today's RFID middleware were not necessary.
RFID middleware vendors generally fall into two categories: pure play and hybrid. The pure play vendors offer RFID middleware only (see Chapter 3, "Components of RFID Systems," for details about RFID middleware). The hybrid vendors have been offering enterprise IT middleware and have recently entered the RFID middleware space.
Computer Systems Vendors
Computer systems vendors (also known as platform vendors) consist of those that offer computer hardware and/or operating system/platform software for the enterprise. They are a critical category of vendors to evaluate for all RFID projects. After all, any RFID application needs a host computer system or network with which to interact. Additionally, many systems vendors also offer enterprise IT middleware, which is often considered an integral part of the computer systems components. As discussed earlier, many enterprise IT middleware vendors have entered the RFID-specific middleware space and are successfully competing with pure play vendors. As such, some systems vendors are now offering RFID middleware as well. Because of the depth and breadth of their experience and expertise, systems vendors are also excellent candidates for the Trusted Advisor role we discussed earlier.
Certain application vendors play a critical role in RFID projects, in particular in the supply chain management applications of RFID. These vendors offer an array of software applications that control various aspects of enterprise resource planning (ERP) or supply chain management (SCM) such as inventory control, warehouse management, supply chain execution, and logistics management. RFID tag data is one source of data input to these applications. Therefore, many of the vendors are creating interfaces that allow the flow of RFID data into their software applications in a seamless manner. Depending on the nature of the RFID application (usually for small-scale and isolated deployments), the offerings from these vendors can eliminate or reduce the need for certain RFID middleware features and functionalities.
Systems Integration Vendors
Systems Integration vendors come in two major varieties: large and small. Large systems integrators are well known in the industry and lead the way in designing, implementing, and integrating large-scale enterprise IT applications. Many have started specific RFID practices, often in targeted industries. The majority of RFID projects big enough for large systems integrators are in the supply chain management area. Smaller systems integrators make up the rest of the landscape. Note that many of the vendor types we described earlier also offer systems integration services. We also note a finer distinction between the bigger small integrators, with hundreds of employees, and the "boutique" integrators/consultants with targeted specialties and only dozens of employees.
The choice of the appropriate systems integration vendor should be guided by the applicable criteria we discussed in the previous section. Although large systems integrators can be more expensive, the smaller ones may not always have the resources to implement large-scale RFID solutions.
Value Added Vendors
These vendors are commonly called value added resellers or VARs. VARs essentially act as a selling channel (often local or regional) for the different hardware and software vendors we described earlier. VARs add unique value to the products they resell by creating custom packaging of the original products and by providing other complimentary services such as consulting, installation, training, and integration.
Specialty Services Vendors
These vendors provide the following critical services required for various types of RFID project implementations: