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Item-Level Trend Spotting

A lot of people say item-level tracking of low-cost goods is many years away. Recent news stories suggest otherwise.
Oct 28, 2002Oct. 28, 2002 - Our article on the Auto-ID Center's interest in creating a patent pool (see Auto-ID Center Ponders Patent Pool) generated a flurry of e-mail. No surprise there. I'm going to wait a week before writing about the views expressed in the hope that more people will write in. If you have thoughts about this important issue, send e-mail mroberti@rfidjournal.com.

In the meantime, I'd like to move on to the issue of item-level tracking. A lot of people I run into believe that RFID tags will always be too expensive to track individual items. Well, there's an old saying among journalists: Three makes a trend. If that's true, we may have a trend emerging. In the last week, we've published three stories about item-level tracking.

Nokia has announced plans to put RFID tags in phones to track them from the time they are made until the time they are sold to a customer (see Nokia Tests Cell Phone Tracking). It's true that the U.K. Home Office is footing the bill and the project may not have been undertaken without that funding. But Nokia would not be wasting its time tracking individual phones if it thought there was no chance that RFID tags would ever be inexpensive enough to make item-level tracking viable.

Nokia is working with DHL, which ships hundreds of millions of packages per year. DHL is very interested in the potential of RFID technology. The company may get some benefits from tracking totes and reusable containers, but the real benefits obviously lie in tracking individual packages as they move through its extensive distribution chain.

The CD.id project is another important example of companies tracking individual products to determine the benefits (see Music CD Tracking Deemed A Hit). CDs will no doubt be among the first items to be tracked in a retail environment. That's because they are high-value items that are often stolen or duplicated illegally. My guess is that if someone can figure out a way to embed chips directly into CDs, the record companies will be singing the praises of RFID within a year or two.

The real validation of item-level tracking, of course, will be when a major retailer or manufacturer moves beyond the pilot stage and commits to actually doing it. AMR Research's Peter Abell says announcements of major purchases of low-cost RFID tags could be made within a couple of weeks (see EU Retailers To Track At Item-Level). We'll be following the story closely, because if it proves to be true, it might convince some people that RFID is a technology that is about to cross the chasm.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article or submit your own, send e-mail to mroberti@rfidjournal.com.
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