Chain of Thought

RFID: No Silver Bullet

“Silver bullet” is the worst pejorative you can use in describing a technology. It links any power that technology might have to superstition. We can thank marketers for much of the fiction written about science, but it doesn't mean their products are science fiction; just overhyped.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology fell victim to the curse of the silver bullet a few years ago. The realities of costs and physics threatened to do it in. But thanks to people like Sue Hutchinson, RFID's story is being transferred to the non-fiction section in the public mindset.

Sue is director of portfolio strategy at GS1 US, the organization responsible for writing the industry standards making real-world RFID applications possible. She told me recently that by getting away from the idea that RFID is the be-all and end-all solution for supply chains, and with the maturation of standards and taming of costs, the technology is starting to gain traction.

“The much better economics on the tags and readers is part of it, but with the standards being developed and stabilizing over the last few years we're starting to see more in the way of whole solutions instead of components being sold,” she said. “We're seeing more integration of the hardware and filtering software that links the read events to systems the users already have, be it an ERP system or a WMS or even point of sale.”

RFID is also influencing developments in machine vision systems. Instead of teaching cameras how to recognize things, with RFID, things are telling cameras what they are. As this takes off we'll be seeing RFID readers integrated into more and more equipment used in warehousing and shipping—including lift trucks and pallet jacks. We're already seeing developments in unmanned lift trucks equipped with robotic devices. Sue believes refrigerated environments will be the ideal application for this technology.

“Humans are another form of contaminant, so any time we can use a good combination of information technologies and good physical technology to minimize the human contact we have with fresh foods, that improves the quality of the goods,” she said. “The technology on the reader side is beefier and we keep getting smarter with antenna designs on the tags so they behave better in high moisture environments with frost and condensation. We're also getting smarter about what the tags need to look like antenna-wise to be able to operate in those environments.”

This news should be pretty exciting to people in the food chain who have had their fill of silver-bullet talk when it comes to RFID. I just hope they're not offended by being called a contaminant.

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