Back to the Future
the future often conjures up images of a Jetson-like universe complete with robots and spaceship vehicles that fold into suitcases. While this lifestyle is light-years away, great strides are in fact being made to take us to a society where washing machines instruct their owners to remove a silk garment accidentally tossed in with the wool sweaters. And, perhaps in 20 years, refrigerators might even print out our grocery lists. To think, these are just some of the ideas that radio frequency identification (RFID) experts are currently working on to make a reality.
In its recent study, “RFID Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2006-2016,” IDTechEx estimated that 1.3 billion RFID tags will be sold this year alone. It is also anticipated that the value of the total market, including systems and services, will jump from $2.71 billion to $26.23 billion by 2016. “People are beginning to see the benefits of RFID, and are becoming less concerned about the uncertainties of this expanding technology,” said David Grove, technical sales, Schober USA, Cincinnati.
Alan Davis, president of Tapecon, Buffalo, N.Y., attributed RFID’s growing popularity to the influence of markets such as Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense. Dennis Ryan, director of RFID business development, Repacorp Label Products, Tipp City, Ohio, agreed. “In the supply chain, companies impacted by Wal-Mart’s and the Department of Defense’s mandates are now seeing a return on their RFID investment by using the data those labels can generate internally, thus driving the growth of that particular market.”
He added, “The same is true when you get into item-level tagging. There has to be a business case to do it and whether it’s tracking counterfeits or improving inventory control, RFID can do those things well.”
When Opportunity Knocks
Item-level tagging is just one opportunity for RFID-enabled printers. In the pharmaceutical industry, the primary motivation for using RFID is anti-counterfeiting. Item-level tagging isn’t limited to the prescription bottles individuals receive from the pharmacy, explained Ryan. Instead, it pertains more to the bulk products that go out to the pharmacy and are then divided up. “The FDA has looked at various ways to track certain classes of pharmaceuticals, and although it hasn’t mandated it yet, it strongly suggests pharmaceutical manufacturers look at RFID. Pfizer is using item-level tagging on Viagra, and a couple of other pharmaceutical companies are either in the pilot stage or in limited rollout with RFID-enabled smart labels,” Ryan commented.
According to IDTechEx, RFID on pharmaceuticals may constitute approximately 60 percent of all item-level tagging in the world by 2010 because of its many advantages, including saving lives, preventing sickness and reducing theft and fraud.
Hang tags for garments are another opportunity where item-level tagging can thrive. “Although there certainly are a number of markets that can benefit from RFID, in the printed label industry, you’ll see it first in high-value articles. It’s easy to justify a .15 cent or .20 cent tag on a pair of $80 jeans than it is on a .39 cent can of peaches,” Ryan insisted. He continued to relate trials occurring in Europe where RFID tags are being inserted on the insoles of shoes.
As evidenced by the retail and pharmaceutical markets, most of the applications for RFID are in the disposable area. “As things progress, there will be more reusable applications for asset tracking and inventory tracking. Also, I see those things moving into more specific applications where you might get tamper-indicating applications,” Davis said. This is currently big in the freight and import business.
Furthermore, sensors or indicators for monitoring temperature are gaining popularity. If blood bags or other perishable items are being monitored, RFID tags become smarter because they are integrated with other data-collecting information, Davis said.
It is no secret that RFID has experienced its share of flaws as more companies begin to incorporate it into their business practices. BBC News recently reported smart radio tags are capable of spreading viruses. Security researchers in the computer science department at Amsterdam’s Free University successfully infected an RFID tag with a computer virus in their attempt to prove the technology’s vulnerability to hackers. Manufacturers of radio tag systems were urged to provide safeguards against these viruses. Subsequent releases have tried to reduce the controversy.
Could this just be more paranoia from the public? RFID is often compared to George Orwell’s “Big Brother” theory since RFID chips can store personal information. But, as Ryan stated, these are passive tags that only work in the presence of a reader. “The minute that tag leaves a reader field, it’s as dumb as a box of rocks. The longest distance you can get with a UHF tag is 50 ft.—and that’s being generous. So, this privacy thing where people are going to drive down your street with antennas spinning on the roof of their truck and find out what brand of coffee you’re drinking is a little far fetched,” Ryan stressed.
In regard to chip problems, Ryan believes the failure mechanism occurred in the chip assembly to the antenna. However, machinery has been designed to reduce this problem. “We’re starting to consistently see yields from our transponder suppliers in the very high 90 percent range,” said Ryan.
As in most cases, the good balances out the bad. “RFID has had its growing pains like any new technology. But, its promise is still bright, and it will find its place,” Grove emphasized.
Rocketing to the Future
With RFID, just how “futuristic” will the future be? Ryan witnessed a store of the future, involving a European clothing retailer. The store contained smart shelves, so if a customer picked up a sweater, there was a flat panel display on the table of sweaters that “came alive” or displayed not only the size of the garment that was picked up, but also, different features of that particular sweater.
From an internal standpoint, if somebody picked up 10 sweaters, a note was sent to the point of sale terminal coaxing the sales associate to investigate the reasoning behind this to prevent shoplifting. Ryan added, “Also, if a sweater was moved over to the jean rack and left there, you could find it by scanning the shelves.”
Additionally, the State Department announced that as of Oct. 2006, it will begin issuing U.S. passports containing RFID chips with some security features, and Japanese appliance manufacturers are developing smart refrigerators, which Ryan believes will not be ready for at least another 20 years. Not only will they be able to print grocery lists, but they can tell people when they’re out of particular items, such as milk.
The time is now to get on board with RFID. But first, have an understanding of what market your company intends to target and of what the paybacks and commitments will be, urged Davis. Remember, it’s all about keeping up with the Jetsons.