Outside the Box

By Mark Roberti

Even as the mainstream business media begins to grasp the importance of RFID in the supply chain, the technology is rapidly expanding into new areas.

RFID Journal recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. I launched the publication in March 2002 with the conviction that RFID technology was going to drive new efficiencies in the supply chain. But even then, I knew that

the technology could be—and would be—used to solve many other business problems, and that one day it would offer myriad conveniences to consumers.

My faith in RFID as an enabler of supply chain efficiencies has been justified by the recent announcements by Albertsons, Metro, Target, Tesco, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense that they will all use RFID technology to track goods in the supply chain. The mainstream business media has finally begun to catch on to the importance of RFID, but few, if any, publications grasp its real significance.

RFID is the link between the computer world and the real world. The Auto-ID Center coined the term "the Internet of the Things" to try to capture this concept, but even that term doesn't quite capture RFID's significance. RFID does more than just link objects to the Internet; it's almost akin to electricity. Electricity made common tasks, such as cooking food or crunching numbers, much easier. RFID will ensure the integrity of many items, make many tasks automatic and make ordinary objects smart.

There are already packages equipped with RFID sensors that can tell you when the package has been dropped or stored at the wrong temperature. And some companies have deployed RFID systems that prevent employees from mixing the wrong ingredients in a food processing plant and alert security guards when a high-value product in a warehouse is moved without authorization.

I don't expect RFID to have the impact on our lives or our businesses that electricity has had. But I do think its impact is going to be far greater than most people realize, because RFID is not just a supply chain technology. In fact, it's already happening. Recently, I was speaking with Jack Bourque, president of RFID Careers, a Winsted, Conn., management recruitment firm, and he mentioned that he's getting calls from companies looking for people who can deploy a wide variety of RFID applications, such as ticketing, personnel tracking and asset management. As companies learn about RFID's capabilities, they are realizing it can solve their business problems, such as keeping track of assets that sometimes seem to sprout legs and walk off.

These applications will expand rapidly as RFID takes hold in the supply chain. Why? Because use of RFID in the supply chain will drive down the cost of tags and readers, and because once companies install the infrastructure for supply chain tracking, they will be able to use it for other applications without much additional cost. And it may not be long before consumers start enjoying many of the benefits of RFID.

Last week, Nokia announced that it was introducing a kit for turning an ordinary Nokia cell phone into an RFID reader (see Nokia Unveils RFID Phone Reader). That was followed by news that Nokia was teaming with Sony and Philips to form a group to promote the use of RFID as a means of sharing data between consumer devices (see RFID News Roundup).

Nokia's focus is on marketing the cell phone reader to companies that have service representatives in the field. But in a few years, cell phones (and PDAs) will prove to be an easy and familiar means for consumers to take advantage of RFID data. Imagine being able to scan an RFID tag on an item and download more information from an Internet site to your cell phone. Imagine being able to use your cell phone to check the price of an item in one store while you’re standing in the aisle of a competitor. Imagine being lost in a hospital and scanning an RFID tag on the wall to download directions to your destination.

Nokia has a community of developers that create Java software applications for their phones. These developers will come up with their own unique applications for the RFID reader. Just as creative minds gave us Amazon.com, eBay and Google on the Web, we will see innovators develop cell phone RFID applications that will make life more convenient for consumers.

I'm very excited about RFID technology's ability to bring new efficiencies to manufacturing and the supply chain. I'm also very excited about the many other ways RFID can be used to solve business problems. And while privacy advocates see RFID as evil, I look forward to the consumer applications that will emerge in a few more years. I don't doubt that there will be some unscrupulous businesspeople who try to abuse RFID technology to take advantage of consumers, but there will be many more honorable businesspeople who invest their time, energy, money and creative spirit to develop RFID products and services that make life better for us all. And you can count on RFID Journal to keep you informed on both fronts.

Note: RFID Journal Live!, our second annual executive conference, is sold out. I know there are some readers who were planning to attend and won't be able to. I apologize. I wish we could accommodate everyone, but our space is limited. Next week, we will announce dates and cities for our 2004 RFID Journal University program.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.

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