Innovation Gets Physical

By Mark Roberti

Rapid advances in digital technologies are beginning to be matched by technologies that improve the physical world—one of which is RFID.

The ways in which companies and individuals collect and share information have changed dramatically during the past 30 years. In 1986, some secretaries were still typing letters for their bosses on typewriters (though most had probably switched to PCs). Very few people were using e-mail. There was no YouTube, Google or Twitter. The Internet, faster microprocessors and cheaper computing power have made digital information part of the very fabric of most people's lives.

And yet the physical world hasn't changed all that much in 30 years. Cars are better, more reliable and safer, but essentially, they've remained relatively unchanged for the past three decades. The same is true for trains and airplanes. Companies ship goods pretty much the same way they did back then, and manage their inventory using the same bar-code systems.

But it seems to me that the digital revolution is now sparking innovation in the real world. Cheap computing power and sensor technologies have made it possible to create driverless cars. Hydraulic fracking has enabled energy companies to break up subterranean rock formations to extract oil and natural gas that was once unreachable. On Dec. 20, 2015, SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched a rocket and successfully landed it back on Earth, ushering in the era of reusable space rockets. Musk also founded Tesla Motors, the first car company to make only electric-powered vehicles.

Radio frequency identification is not as dramatic as those innovations, but it is part of the same trend and could have as profound an impact on the physical world as any technological innovation. Dubai-based Age Steel takes inventory automatically via a drone that flies over its laydown yard (as you can see in this video ). And Tesco is testing robots that roam its store aisles at night, performing accurate inventory counts.

These examples are just the beginning of the wave of innovation that is coming. Eventually, every manufactured item will have a low-cost RFID transponder in it, enabling it to be tracked and managed in real time. Some devices will have sensors that report on their condition, which will enable efficiencies that are not possible today—100 percent picking and shipping accuracy from distribution centers, as well as reductions in safety stocks, and perhaps, ultimately, the elimination of warehouses altogether.

Tracking and managing is nice, but it's not nearly as exciting as automating. Having a tag in every item that uniquely identifies it would allow robots to pick goods within a warehouse in the dark, as well as enable conveyors to divert shipments to the proper staging areas, and systems to automatically warn companies if problems or bottlenecks occur. Imagine hospital rooms that could immediately alert a nurse if he or she entered a room carrying a drug to which the patient in that room was allergic. Or a catheter that could warn employees if the wrong connection was being made. Or a refrigerator that could tell you if it contained an item that had been recalled.

These things sound like fantasies today, and we won't likely see them within our lifetime. But I didn't think I'd see people watching movies on their phones in parks in my lifetime either, nor did I expect to see a driverless car, or a rocket that could fly into space and return to Earth. Never underestimate the power of innovation.

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.