LIVE! 2016 and the State of RFID Adoption

By Mark Roberti

Last week's event says a lot about which regions, industries and companies are employing RFID technology.

I am fortunate to have the best view of the broad market for radio frequency identification products and services. As the editor of the world's dominant RFID news website and producer of RFID Journal LIVE!, the industry's largest conference and exhibition, I have insights into which types of companies are investigating and deploying RFID, where they are based, what industries they are from and so on. Our annual event has always been a good reflection of the state of adoption, and LIVE! 2016, held last week, suggests adoption is growing steadily, though RFID has not yet reached critical mass in any one industry.

A few basic statistics: Roughly 3,000 people attended LIVE! 2016. This year, attendees hailed from 62 countries, suggesting adoption is spreading throughout the world. RFID Journal's database contains people from more than 200 countries and territories, but from 2009 to 2014, attendees typically came from 45 to 50 countries. Last year, the number jumped to 60, and this year it went up again. Attendance from most countries went up incrementally; the number of people coming from Mexico rose by 25 percent, while attendance from Spain doubled.

Most attendees were from North America. Of those arriving from abroad, more came from Europe this year. That's partly due to the East Coast location, but it is also a result of Europe embracing RFID more rapidly than other regions.

There were more first-time attendees this year, which means more companies believe RFID can deliver benefits. Attendees came from companies in more than 27 industries—from apparel manufacturing to waste management. The largest segment, roughly 10 percent, came from manufacturing (this has always been true).

It's easy to see how committed a company is by how many attendees it sends. One airline sent more than 10 individuals to the event. Another sent five, and others sent one or two. Some airlines, of course, did not send any representatives, suggesting the industry still has work to do to convince them that RFID is a technology they should be adopting.

Attendees were highly engaged. Some years, the general sessions are packed for certain speakers and light for some of the others. This year, the room was full for all the general sessions, and the breakout sessions were better attended than in some years past.

The feedback from exhibitors was exuberant. Many told me it was the best LIVE! ever. I know they weren't just blowing smoke at me, because many upgraded to larger booths for next year. I was walking around the exhibit hall on Thursday afternoon, as the event was winding down, and there were still attendees at most booths engaged in business conversations.

We had a respectable number of retailers and brand owners at the event. Still, it is surprising, given that RFID adoption in retail and apparel has been growing faster than any other sector, as evidenced by the increasing number of deployments we've reported on, that many retailers and brand owners in our database chose not to attend the event. Some came last year and the year before and might be in the middle of deployments, but others have never attended. The fact that they did not attend LIVE!, when there is so much news about RFID in this sector, indicates they are not ready to commit to RFID quite yet.

Still, we saw a jump in the number of companies that provide labels and trim to apparel retailers. That suggests they are being asked by apparel manufacturers to provide labels embedded with RFID tags—a positive sign, because apparel needs to be tagged at the source if adoption is going to scale up.

We are clearly in the "early majority" stage of technology adoption. RFID has crossed the chasm, with many companies using it on a large scale now. We had some amazing presentations at the event, including those by lululemon athletica, Delta Air Lines, Oracle and Johnson Controls. But adoption is still being driven by a desire to solve a business problem, not because an industry is moving toward mass adoption and companies must deploy an RFID solution to remain competitive. In Oracle's case, the problem was managing 20,000 data center assets that have a three-year lifecycle and then need to be replaced.

Brian S. Kelly, Johnson Controls' supply chain director for central technology, mentioned his company's "problem" a dozen times in his keynote address. He said the $43 billion auto parts, battery and HVAC services company has "somewhere between four and five million" shipping containers, with 508 variations. He said they tried to track them with "Excel spreadsheets, our ERP systems, napkins—we tried everything." The company has RFID-tagged some 876,000 containers so far in an effort to better track the containers and reduce the amount it spends on replacing them each year.

Big deployments like the one at Johnson Controls, which we at RFID Journal work hard to highlight on our website and at LIVE!, give confidence to other companies that RFID can solve their business issues.

Some investors and CEOs of big companies that sell RFID solutions believe that if you push the right buttons, RFID will reach mass adoption tomorrow. I wish that that were true. But the reality is that adoption will continue to be a steady process of getting more companies to use RFID to solve their problems until we hit critical mass, and then other companies will simply adopt because it is obviously the right thing to do. It's clear to me that we are making great progress. If solution providers focus on making solutions easier to deploy and on converting those researching RFID into users of RFID, we'll get to mass adoption more quickly.

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.