“The Benefits of RFID will soon be realised”

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Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

On July 13th, David Bicknell, editor of GSQ Magazine, published a short article entitled “The benefits of RFID will soon be realised! Well I really agree with the sentiments of this article but there are a number of inaccuracies in the text.

Bicknell uses the analogy of what happened with Web Services to talk about what is happening in the RFID market. However, we are actually at stage 4.0 with the current market. For those of us involved in the RFID market, we know that version 1.0 goes back to the days of the Second World War with the use of RFID to identify friendly aircraft when radar was first being used by Great Britain. Version 2.0 came when the Automotive Industry needed a technology to help gain visibility on the production floor and in the marshalling yards outside the factory. This, of course, was, and is, all closed-loop. So for the last 30 years companies like Daimler Chrysler, Peugeot, and GM have been using the proprietary RFID technology to achieve business solutions around visibility. And of the course the first commercial everyday use of the remote key for gaining entry into one’s car.

What Bicknell calls v1.0 of RFID is actually version 3 and starts at MIT who started to look at what would be needed to create an open loop solution. This led to the formation of the Auto-Id group which involved manufacturers and retailers as well as government in coming up with a solution. Out of Auto-Id came EPCGlobal and GS1. I quite agree with Bicknell that the spearheads for this phase of RFID development have been the retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy in the US, and in the UK, Tesco and Marks & Spencers, and in Continental Europe, Metro. Their pilots, along with the US DoD mandate, have gone a long way to push RFID V3.0 from concept to fact.

Just like Web Services, RFID V3.0 has been seen as the answer to all business problems, which of course was never the case. The last 5 years has seen some stupendous success as well as abject failures in the use of RFID technology. The majority of the key technical issues of using the technology with metals and liquids have been solved through clever and dedicated research and development by organisations as diverse as TrenStar, Symbol (now Motorola), Intermec, Qinetic and Wavetrend.

Some of the successful uses of technology have come from its use in managing and protecting museum and gallery collections (some 40+ installations across the world). RFID is also being used in prison, not only to tag prisoners, but also to keep track of keys. The Airbus 380 has some 10,000 RFID tags in it which were initially used to control the build of the airframe in Hamburg.

Much of the non-success has been due to the issue of the ‘cost’ of tags. In many cases this is not really true. The cost is incurred because people equate the use of passive tags with throwing them away. However the latest knowledge I have received is that a passive tag can be used again and again for some 15 years. With active tags, the life time is restricted to the life of the battery (around 5 years). The key to a successful RFID project, like any other IT-based project, is to understand the business issue and the cost of that issue to the business and then look at the appropriate cost of the solution. This area is something that I am currently looking at as a possible report for Bloor.

Bicknell then talks about the need for IT departments to be aware of RFID technologies as they will need to upgrade their infrastructure. Well, sorry, but this is not always the case. With RFID-based modules becoming part of ERP and SCM packages such as Infor, SAP and Microsoft Dynamics, this will mean that it is more likely that the engineering departments in manufacturers who are responsible for the systems that operate on the shop floor and at the edge of the enterprise are the people who, if they are not already aware, need to gain an insight into the technology. IT department involvement in the process is going to be the need for integration to the back-end systems that run organisations. Bicknell is quite right that the area of data management needs to be looked at, but in my view this is not an IT issue but a business and in some cases an industry sector issue. For instance, it is no good one retailer defining data standards on their own as the bulk of their suppliers will also supply other retailers and it would definitely be prohibitive to have multiple data standards for different retailers. In the commercial airline space, this issue has been recognised and the two main aircraft OEMS—Airbus and Boeing—have been collaborating with their mutual Tier 1 suppliers on defining a single standard.

IT departments will need to get involved in network issues related to RFID, and certainly some of the skills that have been learned by IT departments in terms of the management of mobile devices need to be taken on by what ever group in an organisation is responsible for shop floor systems. It is interesting to note that Microsoft, who have been one of the latent entrants into the RFID market, have exploited their product knowledge of device management to incorporate facilities into the RFID middleware to allow organisations to control RFID and other sensor devices.

The 2012 Olympics are likely to see a massive use of RFID technology, not only during the build process to handle the incredible number of lorry movements into and around the site, but also in the curing of concrete and the maintenance of fire doors and pumps. In addition when you and I come to buy our tickets, don’t be surprised if we don’t see some system akin to the Oyster card (another RFID success story). So we move into the phase 4 of RFID—its full exploitation for business and our benefit.