"If you live in the world of selling ice cream, the problem you run into on Day One of opening is how to tell your customers what flavors you have in the cabinet," Sommers said.
With limited space in front of the cabinet, most ice cream shops resort to listing available flavors on display boards behind the counter. It's a system that is manually intensive and prone to errors, especially when a shop sells as many flavors as Izzy's does, Sommers said. And it results in too many crestfallen customers at the order counter after they learn their favorite flavor is sold out.
With RFID tags on its ice cream tubs, customers can track the flavors available at Izzy's Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul, Minn., by checking the shop's Web page.
Sommers, who professes a fascination with technologies involving sensors and sensing networks, decided to try RFID to solve the problem.
"I just love consuming innovative ideas," Sommers said. Getting technology companies interested in his scheme was tricky, he admitted. Finding an RFID systems integrator interested in such a small project and a software company willing to implement the Web interface was challenging, Sommers said.
"In hindsight, it was a bit like walking into a fancy car dealership and asking to buy a car for $1,000," he said.
Technology companies were initially skeptical about working with such a small client. "So I had to put on a real full court press to get them inspired by it," Sommers said.
Steve Haben, a senior engineer with AbeTech Inc., the Rogers, Minn.-based company that helped Izzy's deploy the RFID technology, admitted to being wary about the project when Sommers first approached the company.
Izzy's was by far AbeTech's smallest RFID client. The ice cream shop's proposed application of the technology was also very different from the usual fixed asset tracking applications for which most AbeTech clients use RFID. Most of AbeTech's clients, which include some Fortune 500 companies, use RFID to track the movement of assets in their manufacturing facilities, warehouses and distribution centers.
Sommers wanted to take the technology in a "new direction," by using RFID to provide real-time visibility of his products, Haben said. "In his world, this really was the big challenge," he said.
The task took a year to complete and has had its share of challenges. The original plan was to stick RFID tags directly on the ice cream tubs, but the tub surfaces turned out to be too smooth. So the tags had to be stuck on the signs in front of the tubs, after first having them laser-cut to size and shape. Sticking RFID antennas in the dipping cabinet to read the tags was also tricky. That issue was resolved with the help of a neighbor who works in the prosthetics industry and suggested trying materials used in orthotics to affix the antennas to the cabinet.
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