Will We Get Smart in 2001?

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Will We Get Smart in 2001?

Depending on whom you listen to, RFID, the technology with more solutions than problems, appears ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. People in the material handling industry are looking for answers — quick answers — not confusion. But it’s confusion they get when they start down the exaggeration-lined path of automatic data collection.

Here’s what I mean. At the most recent Frontline Solutions (formerly Scan-Tech) conference and trade show, RFID was arguably the main topic of discussion among attendees. As one attendee told me, just about the time he figures out what will be best for his warehouse, something new comes along and he has to start the learning process all over! He added, "We went through this maze about 15 years ago when we were deciding which computers to use — now here we are again."

I think the confusion arises, in part, from the fact that many vendors offer such a wide array of products. At a jammed-packed trade show like Frontline Solutions, the overall impact of such displays can be daunting to newcomers. Major players in RFID also sell wireless mobile computing devices that run on local or wireless wide area networks (WWANs). Eavesdropping at vendors’ booths during the Frontline Solutions event led me to believe that many vendors spend a fair amount of time sorting out the various technologies rather than selling product. But education might just be an important function of their jobs.

Also confusing to users, although manufacturers see it as an asset, are the cooperative agreements (partnering for lack of a better word), so prevalent in the automatic data collection industry. For the most part, this combining of skills among companies is good for the end user. It’s just that the end user is sometimes baffled when trying to sort who does what to whom.

Label printer manufacturers are now getting into the wireless market as well, offering small printers that can be located anywhere along your supply chain. While these devices are designed to make life in the logistics world simpler (read faster), it appears they only lead to more confusion for the uneducated.

And therein lies the real challenge for the near future. How can material handling professionals get up to speed with the latest technologies, equipment and applications? The next Frontline Solutions program is not until next fall, but there is a plethora of educational events that can help. You can get a lot of information from the RFID location within the AIM Inc. (the trade association of automatic identification equipment manufacturers) Web site, www.aimglobal.org, or, www.RFID.org. Its calendar of events is the best available. One of the more helpful sections within AIM’s Web site is a list of acronyms, all too prevalent in this industry. Check www.aimglobal.org/technologies/rfid/resources/papers/acronyms.htm. The Web site also has a search engine that gives you a chance to read all the news about RFID.

There appear to be numerous issues in need of resolution before RFID in its many forms, including real-time locating systems, is widely accepted. The largest stumbling block seems to be the choice of frequencies for RFID devices, and the correlative problem of interoperability among the various manufacturers’ devices. These problems are being addressed on a global scale, and organizations, such as the Uniform Code Council, have been leading the search for development of standards for transporting data with RFID tags.

Manufacturers will argue that proof of success is out there. But sometimes, when you’ve heard the details of a victory, it’s hard to distinguish it from defeat. Users, many of whom are not even from Missouri, are saying, "Show me." ADF

By Clyde E. Witt

Editor

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