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Progress Comes in Small Steps

RFID is moving forward, and packaging companies and DOD suppliers are getting on board.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 14, 2005Last week, I wrote that I felt a change in the market—a shift from people saying RFID is a decade away to people acknowledging it’s happening now and they need, at the very least, to understand what to do when the time is right for their company to deploy. That feeling was reinforced by two events I participated in last week.

On Tuesday, I spoke at Packaging Machine Manufacturers Institute's second RFID conference. Not only was the event well attended, but the audience had a good grasp of RFID and the issues around the cost of deployment. Many of the attendees manufacture the equipment that makes the packaging for consumer goods, and they will need to work with their customers to put RFID transponders in packaging. The audience seemed to understand that moving from RFID tags in labels to RFID tags in the packaging is inevitable. That's a big change from the "no way, never happen" remarks I heard at some packaging industry events I spoke at six months or a year ago.

I flew from the PMMI event in Tampa to the U.S. Department of Defense's RFID Summit for Industry in Washington, D.C. I had the privilege of hosting a panel of three early adopters: Lt. Col. Craig Romera, who is overseeing the rollout of RFID systems at the Defense Logistics Agencies depots; David Cass, acting director of the Ocean Terminal Division of the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center in Norfolk, Va.; and Mark Reboulet, the Air Force's program manager for automatic identification technologies.

Each of the panelists imparted some valuable advice. A few things Reboulet said struck me as being extremely relevant for everyone looking to deploy RFID, because they addressed unexpected things that pop up in the real world. He put up a slide that showed read rates ranging from the mid-30s to the high 90s. The poor read rates were not due to failures of the technology (in most cases), but because of the way the technology was implemented. In one case, the people who installed the system were told that a specific door was never used. In fact, 50 pallets went out that door because other outlets were blocked or crowded, so all 50 pallets were missed.

In another instance, the DOD read 22,000 tags but didn't know what they were on. The vendor had tagged the goods but neglected to inform the DOD what was being tagged and when it was being shipped. "As a result of this miscommunication," Reboulet said, "we missed an opportunity to get visibility into the movement of 22,000 shipments."

Reboulet showed a picture of two reader antennas that were hanging from a building support that went from the floor to the ceiling at a 45-degree angle. "You can't always put the readers where you want to," he said. "You need to work within the confines of the building you have." He showed several photos of readers. In each case, the readers were protected by thick metal pylons mounted into the cement and painted yellow. "You see those yellow things protecting the antennas?" Reboulet said. "You need those. Trust me." In other words, you can expect that in the real world readers will get knocked over by forklifts if you don't keep them out of the way or protect them.

There was no brilliant advice about how to achieve a return on investment in six months. Several speakers on other panels of DOD suppliers said the business case is still unclear. They said the technology is still immature but is improving. But they encouraged people not to wait, to start learning about RFID today. The message didn't fall on deaf ears.

At last year's DOD event, virtually all of the questions were about the specifics of the policy. When do we need to start tagging? What tags do we need to use? Are you going to tell us where to place the tags? This year, the focus of the questions was on how to implement the technology and what could be learned from the DOD's own pilots and early implementations. How are you coping with less-than-perfect read rates? Which tags are you using in your pilots? What middleware are you using?

The audience ate up the experiences of the early adopters on my panel and relished the advice of other panelists. RFID is in the very early stages of widespread adoption in the supply chain. The technology is imperfect and sometimes implementing it is a frustratingly slow process of trial and error. But progress is being made. The technology is improving. The early adopters are learning. And people are beginning to grasp that RFID is going to be a very important tool to help them run their businesses more efficiently.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.
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