Observations From RFID Journal LIVE! 2011

By Sue Hutchinson

What a long strange trip it's been...

When you attend the same conference every year, you can become jaded—or, at the very least, suffer from reduced expectations. So it was on Apr. 12, as I rode the monorail from the gates at Orlando International Airport to the main terminal, en route to my eighth speaking appearance at the annual RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition.

From my vantage point at EPCglobal US, I knew good things have been happening in the RFID industry, but when I arrived at LIVE! 2011, I was surprised at the breadth and depth of positive momentum that I saw.

Attendance was up this year, but—more important—there was so much more being shared by end-user companies that have taken up radio frequency identification technologies (EPC-enabled, in particular) and made RFID part of their business environments. For the first time, the bulk of the talks focused on business processes and the returns that users are bringing to their businesses through the use of RFID, rather than on the nuts and bolts of making the technology work.

Chris Diorio, the chairman and CTO of Impinj (a longtime supporter of GS1 and EPCglobal standards), and the winner of this year's RFID Journal Award for Special Achievement, helped me put all of this in perspective. During his acceptance speech, Chris regaled the audience with his tale of demonstrating the readability of 40 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 passive RFID tags on stage at a conference, involving a large Plexiglas box hooked up to a high-speed carpet blower and tags attached to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He and I spent hours trying to get that demo to work, at one of the early EPCglobal US conferences, in September 2005. It really was an era of experimentation and exploration.

Fast-forward to this year's LIVE! event, at which attendees were treated to an end-to-end demonstration of hundreds of apparel items being tagged, moving through the supply chain and being counted in real time as they were stocked and sold from a store floor. It wasn't the tag-reading that was interesting to those in attendance—rather, it was the data and insights that the retailer gained that provided the a-ha moments.

Those two demonstrations, spanning almost six years, helped me sum up where we've been and where we are on this journey toward the use of EPC-enabled RFID:

• 2003 to 2006: Businesses asked, "Does RFID work?" Hence, the Impinj puzzle-piece demo.

• 2006 to 2010: The question was "Does RFID work reliably?" In that era, you might have seen people stapling RFID tags to sheet metal and dropping tags into glasses of water in order to demonstrate readability.

• 2010 to 2011: The question has now become, "How do I make RFID work in my business?" That brings us to healthy discussions about where RFID makes sense in combination with other automatic-identification data-capture (AIDC) technologies, as well as how to integrate RFID reads with existing systems, and how to make use of this new visibility data stream to improve your business.

We at GS1 US have this conversation every day with the country's leading companies and organizations, and we look forward to its continuing evolution over the months and years to come. And I, for one, will be eagerly anticipating my 2012 monorail ride at MCO.

Sue Hutchinson is the director of portfolio strategy at GS1 US, a not-for-profit standards organization that helps businesses adopt and implement RFID technology based on Electronic Product Code (EPC) specifications.