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The Age of Visibility

RFID adopters are discovering that the technology is opening the door to an entire new world of business intelligence.
By John Edwards
Mar 08, 2010—The dawn of the 21st century's second decade marks an evolution in radio frequency identification technologies and practices. RFID adopters in diverse fields, including health care, manufacturing, retail and transportation, are moving beyond basic pallet, case and item tracking. Many are tapping into RFID's ability to provide meaningful, actionable insight into asset and inventory management, customer service, distribution, employee productivity, sales and a myriad of other critical business activities. RFID's new age can be described with a single word: visibility.

"Visibility today has taken on a much more focused meaning when it comes to RFID," says Russ Klein, emerging technology research director at Aberdeen Group. It gives RFID adopters the ability to obtain meaningful answers to complex business questions. "It's much more than 'Where is my stuff, where has it been, who has touched it and has it been handled properly?'" he says. "It's now: 'Can I improve the efficiency of my processes, can I predict the bottlenecks or, better yet, can I predict demand based on the data I'm collecting?'" An RFID deployment engineered for visibility, he says, allows such questions to be answered "at every level of the organization, from the line of business up to the CEO."

Illustration: Michael Knight/iStockphoto
Awareness of RFID's visibility potential is now widespread, says William McNeill, an analyst at AMR Research. "Visibility typically ranks as the top initiative, or business problem, any time we do any kind of formalized survey," he notes. "Even when we do more informal research...visibility always ranks at the top."

The Time Is Ripe
Vendors and other RFID proponents have long touted the technology's ability to help enterprises monitor key business trends, spot potential process improvements, uncover sales opportunities, and stamp out supply-chain and other inefficiencies. Yet many adopters have been disappointed to discover that their real-world RFID systems didn't live up to providers' inflated promises.

Today, RFID solutions are finally catching up with the technology's potential. Multiple factors—including better hardware, software and deployment strategies—are converging to bring RFID-driven visibility into the business mainstream. Solution providers are also integrating RFID with other automatic-identification and data-capture technologies to design systems that can provide the most business benefits.

"The technology itself is now mature enough to address the use cases that have been identified," Klein says. "There are tags for every possible application, the infrastructure exists and the data warehouse is capable of absorbing the information [collected]."

Tags can store more data than earlier models, for example, giving enterprises access to a greater amount of useful information. "Before, people were expecting to have an entire product's history on an RFID tag, and it was impossible," McNeill says, "so they were let down."
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