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Interoperability is Key to RFID Market Maturity

ARC Advisory Group's Chantal Polsonetti discusses the need for multi-vendor interoperability as a key step in the maturity and adoption of RFID technology. Fortunately, she notes, interoperability efforts are underway, and the industry is moving in the right direction.
Sep 14, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

September 14, 2006—Multi-vendor interoperability is frequently a late-stage event in the lifecycle of an emerging technology, and the experience with RFID in manufacturing applications is no different. This phenomenon is not specific to any one segment of RFID used in manufacturing, such as retail supply chain or asset tracking, but rather pervades active RFID, passive UHF, and even WiFi, UWB, and other technologies that could potentially be included in this space.

As a stage in the technology lifecycle, multi-vendor interoperability is frequently a signal that the technology is moving from point solutions in isolated, single vendor, off-line applications to a more collaborative role as part of the overall technology infrastructure. Much has been said about the data that RFID can bring to bear for use in both supply chain and operational processes, but this vision cannot typically be realized by simply adding a hardware interface or software API to a tangential piece of the architecture. Instead, robust, true standards-based interfaces and protocols that can accommodate the heterogeneous nature of most manufacturing infrastructures are required.

Manufacturers and other users of IT and automation technology infrastructure are well-acquainted with the need for newly implemented hardware, software, applications, and processes to interface with both legacy and future installations. This recognition typically results in compliance with interoperable standards wherever possible as a lead item on technology-oriented functional requirements specifications and RFPs, providing an insurance policy for manufacturers who do not want to be locked into a single supplier. The experience with RFID should be no different as manufacturers increasingly adopt the technology to address both their own and their customers' business drivers.

But users of RFID for either compliance or ROI-driven applications are well aware that this type of standards-based interoperability has not been available to date. RFID standards do exist, but they consist of largely single-vendor standards, as in the active RFID realm, or immature, unproven standards in the passive UHF supply chain arena. These scenarios have typically resulted in continued use of homogeneous single vendor solutions, and/or the need for rigorous interoperability testing by the users themselves. Similarly, leading RFID vendors have conducted their own interoperability testing. TI, for example, promoted its own interoperability test results as part of their EPCglobal Gen2 silicon introduction, even though the product had achieved EPCglobal hardware certification.

Fortunately for RFID users, standards-based interoperability is on the horizon. Products that meet the EPCglobal Gen2 Interoperability certification for passive UHF RFID, which certifies them as interoperable with other certified devices, are now being announced by leading providers such as Intermec and Impinj. In the active realm, ISO standardization of the WhereNet-based ANSI 371.1 protocol that was largely a single-vendor standard, and inclusion of that ISO 24730 interface in the new G2 Microsystems System-on-Chip for wireless tags, will boost multi-vendor support for that standard.

These and similar moves toward standards-based, multi-vendor interoperability will go a long way toward moving RFID toward a more mature phase in its technology lifecycle. They will similarly provide a catalyst for more players to enter both the active and passive segments of this market and, along with price and technology developments, will further the convergence of high-end passive, active, and WiFi-based solutions. Until these standards prove that they are a true platform for multi-vendor interoperability, however, users will need to continue to rely on either their own or their providers' own device-to-device interoperability testing.
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