SML Brings End Users, Partners to Its Ideation Space Virtually

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Technology company SML launched its RFID Ideation Space (RIS) at its Plano, Texas, headquarters in 2019 to allow potential customers and partners to physically experience how RFID technology works in a real-life setting (see SML Opens Retail Ideation Space for Item-Level RFID). At that time, says Dean Frew, SML’s CTO and senior VP of RFID solutions, no one could have foreseen how limited travel and physical visits would be in 2020. However, the company has now built a way to access its site through virtual experiences, in which companies can take a tour without their employees physically being there. RIS facilities are also in place in China and the United Kingdom, and the company plans to offer virtual access to these sites as well in the near future.

SML calls its digital version of the RIS its Virtual Immersion Experience in Item-level RFID, and says it began informally hosting digital events with retailers and brand owners this past spring, which has led to multiple contracts and deployments. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SML’s RIS center was used by potential customers to view how the technology works, get the RFID readers and software into their hands, and build out the best use case for their needs. Partners and customers have also used the site for training purposes, Frew says, in order to acquaint workers who will be utilizing the technology.

SML travels to customers’ facilities to assist with this process, Frew says, and it has begun doing so again. However, for those that want to take a look or build out a solution without traveling, SML has set up a virtual experience that comes as close to a live center as the company can offer. The virtual system leverages cameras installed above each room when the RIS was designed a year ago, and users can enter the space by viewing it through camera lenses on a conference call. “Little did we know,” he states, “the virtual system was going to be so useful for customers and a competitive advantage.”

The virtual system was first provided to a customer whose deployment was in the planning stage, just as the pandemic had arrived. SML was able to demonstrate the technology and train others over the air, Frew recalls. The company also used the system for demos during the recent RFID Journal Virtually LIVE! conference and exhibition. The virtual demos are essential for SML now, he notes, since the demand for RFID solutions has been ticking up during the pandemic. “Sales cycles are moving faster than they were even a year ago,” Frew states, due in part to the heightened need for “buy online, pickup in store” (BOPIS), as well as curbside pickup and other new models of retail product delivery.

With the virtual space, companies can set up a Zoom appointment. The system taps into views from the cameras deployed at the store front and in the shipping area and warehouse, enabling users to view the system in real-life settings in an interactive way. For instance, the solution allows users to watch associates live, reading tag IDs via handheld and fixed readers. Users can view how the technology can be employed not only for inventory counting and BOPIS, but also for such purposes as loss prevention, point-of-sale and the customer experience, such as interactive kiosks.

SML provides a portfolio of tags and software, including its Inspire encoded UHF RFID tags, and it provides 24 service bureaus globally. The company’s Clarity software, which manages RFID tagread data, has been deployed at 3,800 stores, Frew reports, and that number is growing this year. He estimates that SML’s customers have increased sales by more than $2 billion. During his Virtually LIVE! presentation, he reported that SML delivered more than 2 billion RFID tags for retail last year.

With the virtual demos, Frew says, “We’re able to use the application to zero in on a set of use cases.” The next step, once an application is defined, “is to configure the solution and get it into their hands.” The company has a single camera on the sales floor, another in the stock room and a third in the warehouse area, though it is currently planning ways to expand the experience for those who opt for the virtual connection rather than a physical visit. “We will add some visibility” during the coming months, he says, with more cameras. During each call, SML’s personnel demonstrate the RFID functionality a potential customer seeks, such as stock counting and BOPIS.