Don't Panic!

It was almost like a scene from the Jim Carrey movie "Liar, Liar!" RFID vendors at the AIM-sponsored "RFID in Transportation Logistics" program in Atlanta in March were, if anything, underselling the technology to an audience ready to buy. It was refreshing -- albeit with a touch of the surreal.

Take, for example, the vendor who said, "The tag manufacturer claims a 40-foot read range but 30 feet is more realistic."

Or the vendor who carefully pointed out that smart label stock has as much as a 20 percent Dead-on-Arrival rate for chips, which is why his company's printer/encoder tries to write the tag before printing the label (and will void unwritable tags). In fact, all printer/encoders do that, but the candor of his admission was rather remarkable. Of course, he did qualify that by saying, "Once real production gets under way, we expect that rate to drop dramatically."

The seminar sessions were equally notable for what was missing -- hype and fear.

The audience was diverse: some attendees were complete novices concerning RFID while others were well-prepared and were looking for specific solutions. While many attendees came to learn about the technology because they are either Wal-Mart or DoD suppliers, others were suppliers to "big box" home improvement centers and wanted to be ready for the inevitable announcement that they, too, would have to start RFID labeling. But there were also a number of attendees who had heard about RFID and wanted to learn more about how to use it in their own operations.

One vendor commented that he'd spoken with the same attendee three different times. During the breaks between seminars, the attendee would come back saying, "Okay, now I have better questions. ..." That could be viewed as one measure of the success of the seminar program.

Perhaps one reason for the relatively calm behavior of the attendees was that Wal-Mart had clarified its requirements for "100 percent readability" -- and it seems that it will be doable. There was, of course, a certain level of acceptance that RFID labeling would be a necessary cost of doing business with Wal-Mart, Target and Albertson's (the DoD has acknowledged that it expects the cost of the tags will be added to contract bids).

These facts aside, however, there was a genuine interest in how far back into their own operations, and indeed, into their own supply chains, companies could push RFID.

There were few concrete answers but it was clear that attendees came away with some ideas.

The same week as the AIM conference, the Salt Institute held its annual meeting in New Orleans. Many of the salt companies were Wal-Mart suppliers and recognized the imperative to RFID label.

Here, too, there was a notable lack of panic. Many of the participants were already well versed in RFID technology. It seemed as if they listened to the presentation and participated in the roundtable discussion more to confirm their knowledge than to learn something new.

Privately, some of the companies revealed that they had plans for innovative and efficient uses of RFID for their internal operations. These plans were for closed systems that did not include EPC or trading partner alliances.

Perhaps the most notable result of the discussion on RFID was the consensus that the salt industry did not need its own RFID standard. The recommendation from the RFID discussion group was that, if they were going to ask their suppliers to RFID label, they'd adopt the same EPC standard as Wal-Mart. The rationale for this was that, since EPC will be the most widely implemented standard in the near term, specifying EPC would make it easier for suppliers to comply. This approach makes so much sense it's almost hard to believe it came out of a committee.

So, where do we stand? Considering that I spent all last week traveling, here's the best analogy I can come up with:

While 2005 will be remembered as the year RFID really took off, 2004 will certainly be remembered as the year everyone filed down the jetway to board EPC Flight 2005 and the RFID juggernaut started lumbering calmly down the runway.

Bert Moore, contributing editor, [email protected]

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