Where We Are Going

By Mark Roberti

RFID is currently being used to help companies track containers, inventory, parts, tools and other valuable items, but it will become as essential to running a business as computers are today.

I have been a business reporter and editor since 1985, and I have focused on enterprise technology since I first heard the word "Internet" at a conference in 1992. I have always seen radio frequency identification as part of an ongoing trend in enterprise computing. As I prepare for our 12th annual RFID Journal LIVE!, conference and exhibition, I would like to take a moment to put RFID in the context of larger IT trends and explain where the technology is going, so you might develop a smart strategy for getting there without wasting a lot of time and money.

For the past 50 years, since the introduction of the first mainframe computers in the corporate world, there have been two concurrent trends in computing. One has been for computing to become more distributed, and the other has been a move toward greater sharing of computer data.

Mainframes allowed a few people to have access to computing power. Then dumb terminals were introduced, in order to give department heads access to mainframes. Later, companies ditched their mainframes in favor of minicomputers that allowed people within a department to work together over a small local-area network. And then, minicomputers were tossed out in favor of giving everyone personal computers that could be connected via corporate networks.

When the Internet came along, there was an explosion in connectivity. Many companies replaced aging PCs with laptops, so employees could work from home or on the road. And the introduction of the Blackberry with e-mail capability, and then smartphones, allowed people to access corporate data 24-7.

RFID pushed distributed computing for the first time beyond the worker, enabling computer systems to interact directly with inventory, tools, work-in-process and so forth. I visited an IBM semiconductor fabrication plant in upstate New York, where there were very few workers. Pods containing silicon wafers zipped around on automated conveyors controlled by computers. Individual wafer-processing stations identified the wafers they were receiving via RFID tags, performed the required processes and then moved the wafers along to the next station.

At present, RFID is mostly used as a solution to a specific business problem—a company is losing tools, so it deploys an RFID system to track them more efficiently. This is akin to the early days of enterprise computing, when businesses introduced minicomputers to help accounting departments do a better job of crunching numbers, but their manufacturing department was still running the shop floor manually, using pencil and paper.

Eventually, RFID will permeate the enterprise in the same way computers have done so. Just as every employee has a desktop or laptop and a smartphone, every tool, container, subassembly and vehicle will have a passive or active RFID tag attached to it, allowing it to be tracked and managed. And this data will be available throughout the enterprise, via the corporate networks that have been introduced throughout the past 20 years.

During the past three decades, companies have ripped out and replaced systems as technology has evolved. There is a danger that businesses deploying a tool-tracking or inventory-management system now might have to replace it in a few years, because it will no longer be able to track other things the enterprise needs to manage. But companies can avoid this fate if they think about where RFID is going, rather than just about the problem they are trying to solve at this moment.

At LIVE! 2014, I will host a Strategic RFID Workshop designed to help businesses think about the big picture and thus plan for the long term. The twin aims of the workshop will be to enable attendees to create an RFID plan allowing them to avoid having to rip out technology in a few years because it doesn't meet their long-term goals, and to adopt an RFID strategy that aligns and supports the enterprise's long-term competitive strategy. I have invited Carlo Nizam, Airbus' head of value chain visibility, to join me for an interactive final session of the preconference, since Airbus has done the best job, in my view, of developing a smart, coherent enterprise RFID strategy (see LIVE! 2014 to Feature Keynote Presentations from Airbus and the Veterans Health Administration, Airbus Leads the Way and Airbus Expands RFID Part Marking Across All of Its Aircraft Families).

I have seen a lot of smart moves made by companies during my 30 years of reporting, and I've also seen a lot of costly mistakes. I would like to do everything I can to help businesses do the former and avoid the latter.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.