More Industries Approach the RFID Inflection Point

By Mark Roberti

At this year's RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition, it was clear that a lot is happening—not only in apparel retail, but also in aerospace and electronics.


I was not surprised to find that there was a lot of interest in item-level apparel tracking at RFID Journal LIVE! 2012, which took place last week in Orlando, Fla. For the past year or so, all of the buzz in the RFID industry has been about American Apparel, JCPenney, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Wal-Mart and others that have rolled out large-scale deployments, or have announced plans to do so. What did surprise me was the amount of buzz regarding aerospace and electronics.

There were many attendees from the aerospace industry at the conference, and the aerospace sessions were packed. Airbus has been a leader in deploying RFID on an enterprise scale (see Airbus Leads the Way), and Boeing is working hard to catch up (see Boeing to Launch RFID Program for Airlines in February). Suppliers of both airplane manufacturers are tagging parts, and many are now looking to leverage the technology internally.

The buzz around electronics was driven mostly by the announcement at the event that Intel has developed a platform for embedding RFID in electronics, and is linking it to Intel’s microprocessor. The benefit is that manufacturers can disable the device during transit, and then enable it at the point of sale without opening the box, which promises to reduce theft. In addition, retailers, IT departments and others can send commands to the device in order to customize it to a user’s particular needs without opening the box (Intel won this year’s RFID Journal Award for Best Use of RFID to Enhance a Product or Service—see RFID Journal Announces Winners of Its Sixth Annual Awards).

How many device manufacturers will adopt the platform remains to be seen, but if many do—and given Intel’s clout, that seems likely—it could push RFID into the electronics sector in a big way. The technology could be used not only to add value to the device, but also for tracking work-in-process and monitoring the devices within the supply chain and at retail stores. There was also a great session discussing how Jabil is embedding RFID in printed circuit boards to track work-in-process, which could be a model for electronics manufacturers.

Those were the big takeaways for me, but there were others. As in 2011 and 2010, roughly 2,500 people attended this year’s event, which means we have not yet crossed the chasm and reached the point at which many companies feel they must deploy RFID solutions. But as in the past two years, many exhibitors reported that end users visiting their booths were extremely knowledgeable and focused on specific business issues they wanted to resolve. Several exhibitors said they had signed deals or were given verbal commitments—a trend that began last year.

In addition to retail apparel and aviation, the conference attracted attendees from businesses in just about every industry, including chemicals, defense, electronics, government, manufacturing, transportation, telecommunications and waste management. And visitors hailed from more than 40 countries again this year.

One point that crystalized in my mind during the event was the chasm between early adopters and the “early majority”—those who adopt once a technology achieves critical mass. Many end users at the event were from companies already piloting or using RFID systems within their operations. They were excited about the benefits they are receiving, and said they were eager to learn how they can use RFID in other ways to drive down operational costs, streamline business processes and boost profits.

As I strolled the exhibit floor checking out new products, numerous end users stopped me, eager to talk about what they are doing, or to ask who they should approach regarding a specific application. There was a steady stream of interested end users at our Ask the Experts booth, at which consultants offered free advice and tips about which booths to visit. And many of the sessions were packed—even on the last afternoon of the event, as end users sought to hear how other companies were achieving benefits.

While everyone in the RFID industry, including many end users, would like to see adoption grow at a faster rate, I think we’ve reached—or are now reaching—another level of maturity. The first level was the pilot phase, which seemed to last forever. Then, end users began utilizing RFID to solve business problems. Now, with those problems solved, they are moving on to new applications or expanding existing installations. We are seeing more enterprise-wide deployments.

There was a lot of talk about LIVE! 2012 being our 10th annual event. One person asked me if I saw the industry continuing along the current trajectory for another decade, or growing more rapidly. I think it’s pretty clear that the 10 years of incubation will lead to more rapid growth during the next 10. The technology is now mature, and the applications are being proven at many of the firms presenting case studies this year. It’s only a matter of time until we build critical mass, cross the chasm and bring on companies in the early majority.

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.