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Be Wary of RFID Advice Givers

Some who claim to be experts aren't really experts, but rather self-promoters with no history of helping end users achieve benefits from RFID.
Posted By Mark Roberti, 08.29.2006
Got an unsolicited e-mail the other day from someone named Sheila, from a consulting firm of some kind. Her message warns end users not to listen to end users talking about their experiences with RFID at conferences. Oh, really? Who should people be listening to, then?

Perhaps Sheila would have them listen to vendors of RFID hardware, software or services. No offense to vendors, of course—many of them are good and provide reliable information. But many haven't been in the industry very long, and most tend to oversell what their products can do. (Remember, companies wasted millions by listening to the claims of B-to-B Internet companies during the Internet boom.)

Maybe Sheila would have them listen to technology analysts. Problem is, most of them have been wrong about RFID from the start. One analyst at a firm that advises companies on important new technologies on the horizon told me they only got interested in RFID after their customers started demanding reports on it. That's right. A company paid to advise on important new technology learned about RFID from the customers paying for the advice.

Actually, it seems the only advice Sheila wants end users to listen to is from her own company. What a surprise.

Here's some of that so-called advice:

"1. Carry out YOUR OWN analysis; don't rely on the experience of other companies." Brilliant. Are there any companies that would invest significant sums in a new technology based solely on the experience of other companies?

"2. Measure the sales and other benefits you will get if your suppliers/customers are using RFID." Just exactly how you're supposed to do that isn't clear, but that's maybe where the paid services come in.

"3. Evaluate alternatives to RFID (bar coding/RTLS/smart labels, etc.)." I'd certainly agree with this, except that RTLS systems are based on RFID and most people use the term "smart labels" to mean a label with an embedded transponder—also RFID. (There are some other technologies that fall under the smart labels rubric, but most people would be hard pressed to name them.)

The advice goes on, and all of it is stuff any businessperson would do anyway. And the point about not listening to the experience of other end users is just silly. The big benefit of hearing end users talk about their experiences is they will give you insights into how the technology could be deployed within your operations.

I'll give you an interesting example from our RFID Journal LIVE! 2005 event. I met an executive from Boeing coming out of a session on RFID payment and loyalty systems. I asked him why on earth a guy from a major airplane manufacturing company would be interested in RFID payment systems. He said his job was to look at new ways to improve passenger comfort, safety and convenience, so he was interested in learning how retailers were using RFID to improve customer service. "Maybe we can use similar applications to get people seated more quickly and call up their meal preferences, or whatever," he said.

End users with experience will tell you honestly that it took seven days to tune an interrogator so it could read tags on a conveyor, or that the tags didn't work as advertised, or that the software was buggy. They'll also tell you if they tried to do something and it didn't work. Testing things on your own is important, but if someone's already been down a road and determined it's a dead end, that's nice to know before you invest time, money and resources on an RFID project.

In my view, hearing from other end users is very valuable, but it's only part of the work companies need to do before figuring out where, how and when to use RFID technologies within their business.

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