RFID: Is This The Year?

In a word: no.

But 2003 will be remembered as the year that RFID got a major kick in the...um...implementation.

In case you haven’t already heard, Wal-Mart has announced that it will require its top 100 suppliers to start using RFID-tagged pallets beginning January 1, 2005. For those of you keeping track, that means 2005 will be "the" year for RFID.

But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if you’re not one of Wal-Mart’s top 100 suppliers. You don’t have nearly as much time to begin getting ready for RFID tagging as you might want to believe.

Other retailers are sure to jump on the Wal-Mart bandwagon and issue their own mandates for RFID-tagged pallets. And, if history is any indication, as retail goes, so goes the nation.

For those of you who remember the "good old days" (before things got complicated with RFID), there were these things called bar codes that got started in retail. Within a few years of the first bar code being scanned at a supermarket, mandates to bar code pallets, cartons and products had been issued by leading retailers, manufacturers, industry associations and government agencies.

Admittedly, despite more than 30 years of proven benefits, there are still some segments of the economy where bar codes are just now being implemented.

You might think that, since it’s taken so long for bar codes to be fully implemented, you might have another couple of years to avoid having to think about RFID.

Not a chance.

There’s one major difference between the history of bar code implementation and the chapter that will be written about RFID:

standards.

When bar codes were first implemented, the Universal Product Code (U.P.C.) forced a radical change in the way companies selling into retail identified products. The U.P.C. was a standardized, 11-digit vendor and product code that today forms the basis of the 14-digit Global Trade Identifier Number (GTIN), the most widely used product identification schema in the world.

Early on, however, manufacturing and government bar code mandates used existing vendor and product coding methods. And each standard created a different way of doing things.

Chaos reigned (remember?).

So, for example, if you sold the same product to an automobile manufacturer, the Department of Defense (DoD) and a retail store, you had to comply with three completely different coding, marking and labeling standards. The reality for most companies was even worse since virtually every customer location had its own variation on the prevailing industry or corporate "standard."

Ah, the "good old days."

It’s taken a good number of years for things to settle down with bar code standards. Bar code labeling is still not entirely "standard" — that is, you can’t put the same label on everything for every customer — but it’s more manageable than it used to be.

The problem back then was that every industry segment developed "stovepipe" solutions for bar code labeling. Retail standards didn’t apply to automotive; automotive standards didn’t apply to DoD; DoD standards didn’t apply to anyone else, and corporate standards could vary by location.

The major difference today is that RFID standards will start out being applicable across a broad range of retail, government and manufacturing sectors.

The newly formed AutoID, Inc., which will develop implementation guidelines for the electronic product code (EPCTM), will be able to draw on 30-plus years of lessons in how not to develop AIDC standards as well as on the 30-plus years of successes.

It’s not a sure bet, however, that RFID pallet tagging will be just an electronic representation of current bar code data. In the short term, that may be true. In the longer term, however, EPC may prove to be as much of a quantum leap forward as was the U.P.C.

It is certain, however, that for the foreseeable future, the RFID tag will be used in conjunction with bar codes simply because the current bar code labels will still be read in many places within a customer’s facility.

It is equally certain that an RFID tag will become mandatory at many customers’ receiving locations.

So, even if 2003 is not "the" year for RFID, it most certainly is the year you need to start preparing.

Bert Moore, contributing editor bmoore@idat.com

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