RFID Enters a New Phase

By Andrew Price

Mounting the slope of RFID enlightment.

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Last year, radio frequency identification was mired in what the Gartner Group calls the “trough of disillusionment.” It’s the period in the hype cycle of a new technology when the initial promise isn’t quickly realized and people begin to doubt the potential benefits the technology can deliver. The next phase is the “slope of enlightenment,” in which companies experiment to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology. Clearly, RFID has entered into this phase.

Over the past year, many companies have established a business case and understand where RFID’s potential lies. They deployed the technology in pilots or rollouts and now know how RFID systems work in the real world. Some have begun initial deployments, while others are waiting for the technology to mature or for costs to fall further.

Many companies have established a business case and understand where RFID’s potential lies.

Many companies in the United States are being compelled to comply with tagging mandates from large retail customers and the U.S. Department of Defense, and RFID compliance projects get most of the press attention. But there are many RFID projects going on today that have nothing to do with mandates.

What’s interesting and perhaps a little surprising is that companies are not focusing on a single type of RFID technology or a single application. They are looking at business problems and deploying RFID where it makes sense for their business. Here are just a few examples of pilots that demonstrate the breadth of the RFID experimentation going on today.

Item-level Data Gathering

McKesson, the largest pharmaceutical distributor in the United States, is piggybacking on a major pilot launched by Pfizer using HF tags to track and authenticate its counterfeit-prone drug Viagra (see RFID Gets Item-ized). The primary initial goal of the test is to evaluate how many of the item-level tags McKesson can successfully read, and to measure how much additional data it will collect through the RFID tag reads.

Laptop Tracking

Netherlands-based logistics and shipping company TNT Express is using UHF tags to track individual laptops and loaded pallets shipped from a PC manufacturing plant in China to a distribution center in Germany. Having completed the trial’s first phase, which showed that RFID technology could be used reliably, TNT has embarked on the second phase, in which it will share data collected across its RFID-enabled supply chain.

School Safety

In a four-month trial, which began in December in Yokohama City, Japan, battery-powered RFID tags with call buttons are being used to track the movement of children in a 2-by-2 1/2-kilometer (1.2-by-1.6-mile) area surrounding a city school, to see if the technology can keep kids safer on their way to and from school.

Electronic Payments

Since October, 200 residents of Caen, a city of 150,000 located in northwestern France, are participating in a trial in which they use mobile phones to pay for goods at 11 retail locations. The retailers are equipped with RFID-enabled payment terminals.

Animal Tracking

New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets is testing UHF RFID tags attached to deer and elk (cervids). The ultimate goal is to track the state’s cervid population and better trace diseases. The pilot uses a 915 MHz radio frequency identification system that allows deer and elk tags to be read from as far away as 2 meters (up to 8 feet).

The hype cycle’s next stage is the “plateau of productivity.” Gartner says a technology has reached this phase when its benefits become widely demonstrated and accepted. Clearly RFID isn’t there yet. But with all the experimentation going on-coupled with rapid improvements in the technology and with prices falling for tags and interrogators-it might not be long before end users are saying: “Eureka!”