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Dr. Jian Zhang: First Post-Doc and His Focus on Grant Research

Dr. Jian Zhang RFID Lab
Pictured above: Doctoral Graduate, Jian Zhang testing his robot, Jianny 5 in the mock retail store in the RFID Lab.

Dr. Jian Zhang is now the first ever RFID Lab Post-Doctoral Researcher! Dr. Zhang was also the first student from the Auburn University RFID Lab to earn a doctoral degree. He received the honor in December with a focus on Electrical Engineering. At the RFID Lab, he leads a team that concentrates on robotics and the blending of different technologies to create new ways to improve daily living and retail manufacturing. 

Dr. Zhang and his team are opening an entirely new avenue at the RFID Lab by focusing on public grant research. The RFID Lab has never before pursued federal grant funding, but this new team is specifically designed to partner with faculty to apply for and execute research grants focusing on automatic identification technologies with NSF, NIH, and various other agencies. The new program has been very successful; in a few short weeks the program has already generated one full grant application, with several more to come!

His first project, and one that he still works on daily, is the robot featured in the image above: Jianny 5. Jianny 5 has the brains of a Dell laptop and eyes of an Xbox camera. It also has RFID readers attached so it can auto-scan RFID tags in the mock retial store to gather data.

Dr. Zhang has also continued to update the robot’s infastructure to allow for more precise movement control around the retail store. 

Additionally, Dr. Zhang is working on a research project which combines the technology used to build Jianny 5 and the technology from a drone scanner also used for inventory purposes. The drone would have an RFID reader attached allowing it to easily fly over a room and scan all the tags within, eliminating the need for a robot to roll around the room. To continue his research in this developing technology, Dr. Zhang is applying for another research grant. 

During our previous interview, Dr. Zhang was asked a simple question: If he could speak directly to those looking at his proposal or to those interested in funding his research, what would he tell them?

“I have the knowledge, the network, and the access to the RFID innovation technology, so with the grants we receive, we can make many new technologies that help with daily life.”

Interested in learning more about Dr. Zhang and his research projects? Want to help fund his latest project? Click below to contact the RFID Lab and start a dialogue today.

Auburn University RFID Lab’s First Doctoral Student: Jian Zhang

Jian Zhang RFID Lab
Pictured above: Jian Zhang discussing his work with colleagues at a recent RFID Lab event

We’d like to introduce you to Jian Zhang. Jian is the Auburn RFID Laboratory’s first student researcher to complete his Ph.D. (Electrical Engineering) while working as a member of the lab. 

But Jian wasn’t always an Auburn Tiger. Before becoming Auburn University RFID Lab’s first doctoral student, he attended Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. There, he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Applied Physics with an electronic specialty.

We began our interview by asking about his choice to attend Auburn University. When I asked him “Why Auburn?” he responded with a smile and stated “Well, that’s actually an interesting story…” 

“I searched for schools in America and found a list that was A-Z and Auburn was almost at the top. I found out it had a very good engineering school and it is in a small town so I submitted my application and now I’m here.” Though the simplicity of his choice may seem comical, he expanded on the story and emphasized that he wanted a different experience than what he had thusfar in his academic career, which is why he was looking at American universities in smaller towns.

As he went through the list, he did simple searches along with the names and Auburn featured that it was a small town, which he wanted, and had a ranked engineering school. He decided that those qualities together made Auburn the place for him and he submitted an application for the Ph.D. program. 

As we continued the interview, he noted that the RFID Lab wasn’t even located at Auburn yet when he came to the states, but he was able to have the opportunity to join one of the initial lab teams once it was established. While discussing the RFID lab, we proceeded to ask him what about the lab he enjoyed the most. Was it the team? The research? After a moment of thought, he answered. 

“My favorite thing is the freedom here. The innovation as well. Anything happening in the RFID community, we will know about it here first and from that you can use the technology involved to help influence daily life. Like the plane seats we recently received from Delta. We can see how RFID can be used when traveling and for airplane compliance.”

He continued to emphasize that the lab was always up to date with the latest technology for RFID and other tracking technologies, so the students are able to gain hands-on and real world experience, while having the freedom to test new ideas and innovate.

He then moved on to discuss how the lab affected his education and his passions by stating: “I have many resources here. Not only the RFID technology and RFID equipment, but I have access to talking with people who work in the RFID industry.”

The lab offers “Mentor for a Day” luncheons where the students have a chance to meet with leaders and innovators in the industry and ask them questions in order to learn about the latest RFID research. RFID Lab Director Justin Patton is also considered a thought leader in the RFID community and the students have an all-access pass to speak with him, ask questions, run ideas past him and more, and that experience is invaluable. 

Because of all of these opportunities, Jian is thankful for the placement of Auburn University on the A-Z list. It may have been a simplistic way to choose his next academic career move, but he has no regrets and is thankful for the opportunity to attend this prestigious university. 

Without a doubt, Jian would have completed his doctorate and found his passions without the assistance of the lab, but he recommends that students branch out and find opportunities because you never know where they will lead. Jian is now applying for grants to continue the research that he has been working on for the past two years at the lab. He recommends the lab to students of all higher education levels and majors, and offers some advice: 

“Just be open, and try many new options because being here at Auburn, you have many opportunities. Also be open to any new techniques. It may be something you don’t know about or have never heard of before, but that doesn’t matter, you will gain skills and knowledge in many techniques by being involved here at the RFID lab.” 

Be open. Learn from those around you. Take advantage of the opportunities surrounding you. Sounds practical enough, right?

Thank you for the advice and congratulations, Jian!

Julia Marr: NRF Scholarship Recipient

Julia Marr - RFID Lab

Julia Marr, a Junior in Supply Chain Management and a Lab Assistant at the Auburn RFID Lab, received a scholarship from NRF to attend the 2017 conference in NYC. We sat down with her to discuss the process, the highlights, and her takeaways.

First, some background. NRF stands for the National Retail Foundation and every year they host a conference in New York. They invite thousands of companies to attend, speak, and showcase their latest innovations and technologies. Every year they offer scholarships allowing 2 students from every university in the U.S. to attend free of cost. 

We asked Julia, why only two students? “One student is selected from the College of Human Sciences and one is selected from the College of Business. Human Sciences is involved because they handle the fashion merchandising side of things and business was invited to the conference for more of the Supply Chain Management perspective. They are looking to merge the two perspectives as much as possible now.” Pulling the best student from each college gave the attending students the unique opportunity to connect with those at other universities and learn from those working on the other side of the spectrum in the retail chain.

But what about the scholarship itself? “The process was pretty difficult. I had to write 3 essays and create a timeline of retail and how RFID has been implemented over the years. It was a pretty intensive process, it took a couple days to fill out.” She continued and stated that “..the students at the lab were encouraged to apply because we have such a vast knowledge of what is happening in the RFID world and retail.”

It was an intense process, but with only one student being selected from her college, it had to be. Was it worth it? Julia discussed how inspiring the conference was for someone in her position. “It was a very inspiring conference. There were huge business leaders there. The most inspiring was probably Macy’s. They just placed such an emphasis on tasks that we do every day at the lab and how those are being used every day in their stores. It showed how they’ve achieved their dreams and goals, just starting off small as a student researcher or working in a lab and growing their business and fulfilling their dreams.”

To finish the interview off, we asked her if she would recommend the conference to other students. Would she recommend applying for the 2018 scholarship? Her answer? “I would absolutely recommend future students to apply! It’s intimidating, but I would encourage them to apply anyway.”

So check them out here, and we look forward to seeing if another lab assistant attends next year!

Want to see the entire interview? Head to our YouTube page and check it out!

Who Pays for Retail RFID Tagging?

Whether the brand buys the tags or the retailer subsidizes tagging, the cost will be absorbed into the cost of the item in the long run. We still have a few apparel retailers ask us about cost of goods increases for RFID tagged items. What many of them don’t realize is that the per-item cost of apparel RFID is quickly becoming independent of whether or not the retailer actually has an RFID program. Unless it’s an exclusive or private label item, retail RFID tagging is fast becoming a standard feature rather than a retailer requested option.

Now that the majority of the top 100 apparel retailers in the US have active RFID deployment programs, brands that are selling to multiple retail customers are eventually going to have to decide whether to try to segregate RFID tagged inventory in their supply chain for a particular retailer, or just go ahead and tag everything with RFID tags whether their other retail customers requested the tags or not. 

Surprisingly, the number at which most brands shift over to the “just tag everything strategy” is much lower than one might think. Typically once 35-40% of items are being shipped to an RFID enabled retailer, the brands will go ahead and tag the other 60-65%, even though those retailer customers may not even be requesting the tags yet. Its just cheaper and easier than sorting RFID tagged from non-RFID tagged inventory. 

RFID Lab

We actually went to one retailer to help them with their RFID tagging program for denim, and in the store we immediately began scanning thousands of RFID tags on non-denim items. We found that their entire store inventory of men’s dress slacks was already tagged! They were at full brand compliance, even though they hadn’t scheduled that category for rollout until months in the future. RFID had already tipped for their brands, all they had to do was collect the data and reap the benefits.

In the olden days of item-level retail between 2010-2013, single retailers were still driving their supplier base to RFID. Those days are long gone. Even though some retailers still believe they have the mandate to request or reject apparel RFID tags and their incremental cost, they are simply too late to the game to understand that the market has already passed them by.

Now that most brands and contract manufacturers have experience with RFID, the barriers to adoption are smaller.  As the market tops 5 billion tagged items this year, and apparel RFID has crested the adoption curve to common practice, new non-apparel items with high demand for “click and collect” or Buy Online Pick Up In Store (BOPUS) are fast becoming the next generation of RFID tagging demand. 

Electronics and Sporting Goods are the first targets, as they are categories that savvy customers tend to heavily research online before making purchases to stores. Retailers are learning the hard way that they simply cannot prevent disappointing their customers unless they can get their inventory accuracy up towards 95% plus, and the only proven technique in retail today to attain reliable inventory accuracy levels beyond 80% is with RFID.

Why is it that brands are more willing to invest in RFID on their items now than in the past?  What has changed about data management, serialization, and the cost of tagging that reduces the financial burden?  Why are some brands now asking their retail partners to hurry up and adopt RFID in their stores? 

These are all pressing questions we plan to answer on our blog early in 2017. Please check back often as we get to the bottom of these FAQs. Looking for more information in the meantime? Click below to view the research paper section on our website to see all of our research over time.

Takeaways from the RFID Lab Open House

On September 23rd, the Auburn University RFID Lab hosted an open house and offered an interactive tour of the facility. Visitors of all ages attended out of curiosity and excitement. Many wanted to know what the lab does on a day-to-day basis, while others came to learn the basics of RFID and its applications.

RFID Lab

Pictured above: Justin Patton, the Lab Director, shows the visitors the advantage of using RFID tags on denim in the mock retail store during the RFID Lab open house. In about four seconds, he was able to read 261 tags. 

The tour began with Lab Director Justin Patton describing the basics of RFID tags and readers. He compared them to the more commonly known UPC codes seen in stores, so visitors had something familiar to compare it to. He talked about how they are different and the pros and cons of each.

Patton then moved on to describing the different ways the technology is being used. He beagn with information on how RFID technology is being implemented in professional and collegiate athletics. RFID is already being used by the NFL to track their players during games. It’s also being used during practice for many collegiate teams, allowing the coaches to better track the endurance and health of their players.

With football season in full swing here on The Plains, being able to see this technology used with football gave the attendees a whole new perspective on RFID and its applications.

“My favorite part of the tour was hearing about how RFID is being used on football players,” said one visitor. “It’s just so cool!”

Patton then moved to the mock retail store and demonstrated the ease at which you can track inventory with RFID. Inside the mock retail store lives Jianny 5, the RFID reading robot built by students Jian Zhang and Yibo Lyu.

Jianny 5 uses an Xbox camera as an eye and moves around the store taking inventory without human assistance. This is another example of RFID making the retail industry more efficient. 

Overall, the visitors seemed to enjoy the lab and the tour.

“I didn’t really know anything about RFID coming in,” one visitor stated, “but it is all just so fascinating and educational and exciting!” Visitor favorites included Jianny 5 and the football tracking system. 

Interested in future RFID lab open house events? Sign up for our monthly newsletter, where you’ll hear about what is going on at the lab and events we are hosting.