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The Coming RFID Skills Crunch

Suppliers are scrambling to figure out how to tag pallets and cases for retailers. But where will companies find qualified experts to install RFID systems? Some experts are predicting an expensive war for talent.
By Bob Violino
Jul 27, 2003—By Paul Prince

July 28, 2003 - Successfully implementing an RFID system is no simple matter. Just ask CHEP, a global provider of shipping pallets and containers to Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and many other corporate giants. Over the past several years, CHEP has equipped about 250,000 pallets with RFID tags and
John Greaves
installed about 50 readers in its Florida service centers in a pilot involving some of its manufacturer, distributor and retailer customers. But CHEP found its pilot was slowed down at times because the installers lacked the experience to foresee potential deployment snafus.

In one case, a reader mysteriously stopped working. It turned out that an employee had sat down on some steelwork to have a cigarette and accidentally knocked an antenna array out of alignment. John Greaves, CHEP’s director of RFID at the time and now an independent RFID consultant based in Chicago, Ill., attributes the root cause of the problem to a shortage of installers with the experience needed to do the job correctly the first time around. "The deployment failed to protect against it against that possibility because the deployer failed to recognize the possibility," he says.

Following Wal-Mart’s June 11 announcement that its top 100 suppliers need to put RFID tags on pallets and cases starting in January 2005 (see Wal-Mart Spells Out RFID Vision), companies are scrambling to learn how to deploy RFID. If Wal-Mart's announcement spurs other retailers to follow suit -- and most experts believe it will -- then suppliers could be faced with a huge shortage of people with the expertise needed to deploy the technology. Some people predict that the shortage of trained engineers and technicians will be so severe that it will bust the RFID industry just as it starts to boom. Others experts say that technicians and engineers can be drawn from other fields -- such as the once-hot telecommunications industry -- and can be quickly trained by companies offering RFID deployment and integration services.

John Greaves recently cofounded the ePC Group because he has years of hands-on experience and recognized the need for experts who can help companies deploy RFID systems successfully. He believes that 50 percent of RFID implementations will fail due to an insufficient number of qualified RFID system designers and installers. "Demand for RFID deployments will skyrocket in the next two years," Greaves predicts, "and disappointments in deployments will skyrocket exponentially, too."

Some companies will just have to learn the way CHEP did — on the job. "We had a lot of pioneering scars along the way," says Brian Beattie, CHEP’s senior vice president of marketing. "We learned a lot about the tags and a lot about the readers—where you place the readers, which types of readers to use. You can use a wall-mount reader, a fork-lift-mounted reader, a hand-held reader, and there are circumstances where some of those are efficient and where some of those aren’t."

That kind of learning takes time, and with Wal-Mart's deadline just 18 months away, many suppliers just don't have the time to go to the school of hard knocks. So is there a crisis looming?
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