Is the Market Suffering From ‘RFID Weariness’?

By Byron Blackburn

We're not tired of RFID—we've simply heard too many horror stories stemming from poor planning, inadequate execution and a lack of knowledge and vision.


Let’s face a few facts. Radio frequency identification has never had its banner year, exploded in the market, or became the standard for how all things are tracked or traced.

I’m not saying that the technology has not made some excellent inroads into retail and health-care markets, but the adoption cycle has been slow. Those of us who have weathered the flurry over the past 10 years of this business (some of us, 30 years or more) are committed to the industry, and I find that it has been a vastly rewarding and enjoyable experience. RFID is a market sector that keeps us engaged, and deeply entrenched to push the technology to the next level.

During a meeting with a renowned marketing firm the other day, I heard a new term mentioned that I had not yet encountered: “RFID weariness.” Over the next couple of days, I began to wonder, Is that how the market (customer) sees RFID—as weary or worn-out?

Being in this business, working with a majority of the major players at different points during my consultancy, I have amassed a wealth of past projects and notes to review for reference. Many times, I find myself being called by customers (end users) to design a solution—or, from the supplier’s side, to do the same thing, but to help make a company’s product operate with a particular application. Sadly, sometimes it’s just a matter of damage control. Reviewing these past projects and process improvements, as well as digging through discussions from LinkedIn posts, blogs, direct inquiries and articles, I have gathered some very good reference points from deployments across many sectors.

I would not call this current state of the market “RFID weariness,” however. Yes, many people have tried RFID and grown tired of hearing about its promise. And yes, in most cases, the technology has not solved the problem that they threw it at. Two key words to note in this statement: “tried” and “threw.”

Tried It

“We tried the tool, and it did do what it was it supposed to do, but that’s all—and I’m looking for this.” This statement characterizes the bulk of RFID deployments with issues. Say that you need a production parts-picking operation problem fixed, or to monitor supply delivery runs. The boss says to try RFID, and the worker bees put an RFID tag on everything, and add the infrastructure to read the tags, with the system costing $100,000 dollars or more—sometimes much more. In the end, you now have an RFID system and the information to tell you this is here or that is there, but it does not tell you what to pick and why. Delivery systems are the same. I know where my trailers, trucks or carts are located within a facility, but not what’s on them, where they go or if they are on time. End result: Well, it kind of works, but it doesn’t give you much.

Threw it at the Problem

This is the best one. The boss says, “We have a problem—go get some RFID and fix it. They say it works.” A worker bee again studies up on the problem, finds a system that fits his budget and does his best to throw it in. The results vary, but the final outcome is assured—it just didn’t work. Two problems here: RFID is based on radio frequencies, and without some prior knowledge, things don’t always work as expected, unless you are lucky or are using passive technology with limited read-range requirements and you can figure out the correct antenna and power settings. The end result is about the same as “Tried It,” which is that it kind of works, but doesn’t give you much.

RFID is a tool, and tools do some of the work, but the solution is much larger than that. Process analysts and mapping are required first. Deployment plans and tool selection are crucial, along with process control after it is implemented, and knowing how the system will be used. All of the required results must be considered if you want your tool to work. Integration with your existing systems is another step that most people miss. If location and movement data is critical to your current systems, and if automation is the goal to reduce human error and touch points, then the tool better provide your systems with the information, not hold it somewhere in another standalone tool.

Next, the pricing issue comes up—”The tag cost that much? The readers are what?”—and that is where customers look to save money, rather than considering the big picture in terms of the problem he is attempting to solve. Is there a return on investment in RFID? Absolutely! More ROI, in fact, than can be calculated by a Six Sigma project, or some other highly touted system and process—but not all of it will be dollars to the bottom line.

Let’s look at cost this way. I can drive a nail with the palm of my hand (ouch), but it can be accomplished. If I want to help my son or daughter build a birdhouse, I may succeed in getting one or two nails in before I’m ready to quit—or go to a hospital—so a tool may be in order. Answer: A $5 hammer at the local discount store will do. Problem solved! It may be of poor quality, unbalanced in my hand and only last for this particular job, but it will get this job done.

If I do this every day, I may decide I want the $40 Pro Model with a shock-absorbing handle. If I’m building big homes and developments involving major construction work, that $499 air hammer now looks very tempting compared with my bruised and battered palm.

See my point? Price is not the issue. It’s the job at hand, the required overall results necessary for the entire system, that matters, not just a small painful area somewhere along the process.

So RFID can locate your supply delivery carts or trains, or your to-be-picked items, but without the hows, whys and wheres answered, the value falls far short of ROI.

The bottom line: We are not tired of RFID. We’re simply tired of the horror stories and the money spent with limited results.

Jump Forward: 2011

A few of the RFID companies I know of are addressing this problem today, and are securing the software side of the equation. Remember the point above. I’m the carpenter building the house, and I can be the cheap bleeding-hand guy, or the smart, savvy and efficient one getting a lot more done with limited resources.

Software and back-end systems integration makes the RFID tool work, and that requires planning and processes. (The caveat here is that some RFID companies still use basic RFID tools with their newfound software, which limits results compared with the technology currently available.) Pin me to a wall and disagree all you like, but the software does the triangulation and location handiwork on the back end. Some may be loaded on the tag or the reader, but the basics are the same.

Now, there are some leaders in this sector that may not have gotten all the press they deserve. I don’t want to advertise them openly, and make many of my other friends and associates mad by thinking I am discounting their products, because I am not. A truly well-thought-out end-to-end solution will comprise a blend of many types of products—passive, active, bar code, wireless, cellular or mesh backbones. Many of my past associates and companies with which I have worked have stellar products in their niche of the spectrum.

In my opinion, two companies stand out. Both have limited the infrastructure requirement to near zero, in most cases, and have adopted two-way communications. This alone takes us to the second and third generation of RFID.

One of these businesses has stepped away and leapfrogged forward, not only building RFID devices, but also a two-way-communications layered sensory network. This allows the “tag”—for lack of a better term—to support up to nine devices or sensors, as well as monitor them, relay information, act on this data and allow complete point-of-use communication and integration.

Employee badges can not only tell you who a particular worker is, but also be aware of that person’s surrounding environment, and report his or her status and exposure to hazardous conditions, such as radiation, trace gases, temperature, man down, water/sea water (man overboard), actual GPS location, and much more. Remember, the tags support total two-way communications, so you can send messages and alerts to the person wearing the badge as well.

This same technology can be applied to assets and vehicles. It can be used to tell you if a vehicle is running, if its fuel tank is full and whether the correct person is operating it. Best yet, you can instruct the tag to “shut everything down in the yard and don’t let it start.” Does it work? Well, yes—and 85,000 rental cars can say so.

This smart-sensor product has so many applications, the mind reels with possibilities. A facility had a hydraulics fire that burnt up a few hundred feet of PLC wiring. The customer faced an estimated loss of three weeks and a few million dollars due to production downtime—not including the expense of the rewiring. Well, add 40 smart sensors on the control switches, wirelessly communicating back to the system, and sending that information to the PLCs, and a few hours later, it is all running again as normal.

Like I said, the mind reels. Petro chemical, mining, production, safety—the possibilities are limitless. RFID may have made us weary, and built some trepidation, but a select few with vision are charting the course for a new and brighter future of our connected world.

Byron Blackburn is the principal of Blackburn Global, an RFID consulting firm headquartered in the Greater Atlanta Area.