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Beyond the Supply Chain

RFID is enabling a new generation of innovative business and consumer applications.
By Mark Roberti
Dec 01, 2010 Radio frequency identification was originally seen by many as a better, faster and more reliable way for companies to track pallets and cases as they moved through the global supply chain. Today, the technology is beginning to deliver on that mission, and at the same time, moving well beyond the applications its early promoters envisioned.

It's important to remember that RFID, like the Internet, is an enabling technology. And just as the Internet went beyond e-mail and static Web sites to deliver a new generation of applications, such as Facebook and YouTube, RFID is enabling a new generation of innovative business and consumer applications.

Contributing writer John Edwards reveals in this issue's cover story that the hot new RFID applications involve smart phones, social networking, robotics, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and self-service retail (see RFID: The Next Stage). Custom Cupboards, for instance, a cabinetmaker in Wichita, Kans., is using a pair of RFID-driven robots to build custom cabinet face frames. And the Southeast Alabama Medical Center, in Dothan, Ala., relies on RFID M2M to continuously monitor the condition of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals.

Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology is turning smart phones into payment devices as well as data-collection tools. Pilots conducted worldwide let commuters pay for bus and train rides with NFC-enabled phones. Analysts envision a day when shoppers will enter stores and scan tagged products with their phones to get information about item availability and more. In the meantime, many stores are experimenting with RFID self-service kiosks that provide that information, freeing up employees to serve customers in other ways.

In fact, next-generation RFID applications are not all about business. Many companies are using RFID to improve the customer experience while increasing sales. Izzy's Ice Cream, in Saint Paul, Minn., uses an RFID system to inform in-store customers about its ever-changing array of flavors. The system also uses social media tools, including Facebook and Twitter, to alert customers whenever Izzy's makes a new flavor available.

Vail Resorts, which comprises five mountains in Colorado, California and Nevada, is taking RFID to new heights. Readers at the lifts identify skiers and automatically log their vertical distance skied, number of skiing days and resorts skied. Later on, skiers can compare their totals with friends and family via Facebook. Vail's goal is to stockpile data while creating a social interaction environment, to better serve customers and build sales.

Other resorts, as well as amusement parks, sports arenas, restaurants and health clubs, are beginning to catch on to the many ways in which RFID can be used to enhance the customer experience and improve the bottom line (see RFID Serves Up Benefits for Guests and Hosts). A popular application is an RFID-enabled card or wristband that provides access to a venue or hotel room and doubles as a charge card.

One thing some early promoters of RFID did envision was the ability to manufacture tags that were inexpensive enough to use everywhere (see Whither the Five-Cent Tag). Clearly, technology advances coupled with innovative thinking are propelling RFID's evolution. Is your company taking advantage?

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor's Note archive. Photograph: Photobykristyna.com.
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