Can Anyone in the Obama Administration Spell ‘RFID’?

By Mark Roberti

The president called for Congress to authorize $1 billion for ill-defined support for manufacturing, while ignoring the RFID revolution in its backyard.


Each year, the president of the United States delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. These speeches provide laundry lists of things the office holder would like to get done, but will most likely never accomplish. But I watch every year, to see what the president thinks is important.

This year, President Barack Obama discussed the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute that his administration created in Youngstown, Ohio. “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” he stated. President Obama announced that his administration was launching three more such institutes, and he called on Congress to allocate funding for 15 additional institutes at a cost of $1 billion. These hubs, he explained, would be places “where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.”

These institutes might be a good idea, but here is what annoys me. One of the most important changes that will take place in the manufacturing sector during the next 20 years will be the use of radio frequency identification, vision technologies, robotics and other technologies to reduce waste and costs, as well as generate massive increases in productivity. These changes will be as profound, in my view, as those wrought by the introduction of computers in offices.

Unlike the Internet, which emerged from U.S. government-sponsored initiatives—notably Darpanet—RFID is not being nurtured by the U.S. government. And unlike the Internet, which was driven largely by U.S. innovation, RFID is an open field, with companies worldwide competing for a major stake in the market. The U.S. government could still help nurture RFID companies in the United States. Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration can spell “RFID,” or seems to understand what the technology is and how it can benefit manufacturers. This is ironic, given that the DOD is one of the largest users of RFID technology in the world (see DOD’s RFID Efforts Are Winning the War on Inefficiencies), while the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans to RFID-track equipment and supplies at all its medical centers and facilities (see VA to Reassess Contract, Proposals for Nationwide RTLS Deployments).

I can sum up the Obama administration’s support for RFID in a single word: “nonexistent.” European governments and the European Union have funded and continue to fund numerous projects—from the United Kingdom’s 2000 Chipping of Goods Initiative (see Case Study: The Value of Visibility) to the EU’s current RACE networkRFID initiative. Governments in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea have also supported RFID projects in an effort to give companies an edge in the global market, while those in Australia, Brazil and Canada believe that monitoring cattle with RFID technology can help grow their economies.

Even if you are skeptical of government involvement in the economy, the government could help develop the industry (to the benefit of all companies that will use the technology) by embracing it for the money it can save taxpayers.

Rather than allocate $1 billion for manufacturing institutes with ill-defined goals, the Obama administration could provide $100 million in funding for RFID projects that will save the government at least $1 billion over a span of 10 years. The VA and the DOD are two government entities that have embraced RFID as a means to becoming more efficient and saving taxpayers money over time. And there are many other agencies that could benefit from the use of RFID technology as well. The General Services Administration, for instance, procures roughly $70 billion worth of goods for other federal agencies. Managing that much stuff cannot be carried out effectively without RFID.

The federal government could create a joint task force to share best practices and promote the intelligent use of RFID and other technologies to cut costs. Learnings from one project could no doubt be applied elsewhere within the government. An interagency committee was set up to examine ways in which RFID could be used throughout the government, but it has no mandate and everyone on the committee has another job. The task force should be staffed with retired businesspeople like Jack Welch (General Electric‘s former CEO and the founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute), who can apply new technologies and proven business practices to make the government more efficient.

These efforts would create savings for the government, as well as business for private RFID companies. That revenue would allow RFID technology providers to invest in enhancing their products, making them better able to deliver real benefits to both U.S. and foreign companies.

If the U.S. government really wants to encourage manufacturing innovation, it could commit $500 million over five years to support private sector or joint public-private sector initiatives to expand the use of RFID in manufacturing and other industries. The government could also fund investments in factories of the future that would employ RFID to streamline processes and reduce costs.

The DOD has been tracking shipments through its supply chain. The Obama administration could fund an initiative to put RFID readers at all the nation’s border crossings, ports and airports, so private companies could use the technology, if they so choose, to gain visibility into containers’ arrivals and departures. That visibility would benefit businesses enormously—and, when combined with factories of the future, it could spur private-sector investment in improving manufacturing efficiencies and supply-chain visibility.

I realize these initiatives are not as sexy as “manufacturing institutes” that will somehow magically sprout high-tech businesses with a lot of jobs. But my ideas would save taxpayers money, help nurture the nascent RFID industry, and help companies learn how to use the technology to become more efficient. These are definable and achievable goals, if only someone within the Obama administration could learn to spell “RFID.”

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, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.