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Where We Are Going

RFID is currently being used to help companies track containers, inventory, parts, tools and other valuable items, but it will become as essential to running a business as computers are today.
By Mark Roberti
Mar 31, 2014

I have been a business reporter and editor since 1985, and I have focused on enterprise technology since I first heard the word "Internet" at a conference in 1992. I have always seen radio frequency identification as part of an ongoing trend in enterprise computing. As I prepare for our 12th annual RFID Journal LIVE!, conference and exhibition, I would like to take a moment to put RFID in the context of larger IT trends and explain where the technology is going, so you might develop a smart strategy for getting there without wasting a lot of time and money.

For the past 50 years, since the introduction of the first mainframe computers in the corporate world, there have been two concurrent trends in computing. One has been for computing to become more distributed, and the other has been a move toward greater sharing of computer data.

Mainframes allowed a few people to have access to computing power. Then dumb terminals were introduced, in order to give department heads access to mainframes. Later, companies ditched their mainframes in favor of minicomputers that allowed people within a department to work together over a small local-area network. And then, minicomputers were tossed out in favor of giving everyone personal computers that could be connected via corporate networks.

When the Internet came along, there was an explosion in connectivity. Many companies replaced aging PCs with laptops, so employees could work from home or on the road. And the introduction of the Blackberry with e-mail capability, and then smartphones, allowed people to access corporate data 24-7.

RFID pushed distributed computing for the first time beyond the worker, enabling computer systems to interact directly with inventory, tools, work-in-process and so forth. I visited an IBM semiconductor fabrication plant in upstate New York, where there were very few workers. Pods containing silicon wafers zipped around on automated conveyors controlled by computers. Individual wafer-processing stations identified the wafers they were receiving via RFID tags, performed the required processes and then moved the wafers along to the next station.

At present, RFID is mostly used as a solution to a specific business problem—a company is losing tools, so it deploys an RFID system to track them more efficiently. This is akin to the early days of enterprise computing, when businesses introduced minicomputers to help accounting departments do a better job of crunching numbers, but their manufacturing department was still running the shop floor manually, using pencil and paper.

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