Magazine Article | October 1, 2004

An RFID Fairy Tale

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, simple thinking will lead to budget overruns, missed deadlines, and endless frustrations.

Integrated Solutions, October 2004
Ed Hess

"RFID (radio frequency identification) is just another data collection technology." I hear vendors make this assertion all the time. But, treating RFID as just another data collection technology is the first step in an implementation journey filled with setbacks and ballooning budgets.

A Wal-Mart 100 supplier was recently telling me about some of the obstacles his company faced when it piloted RFID technology. His pilot team ran a pallet with an affixed smart label through one dock door and the wall-mounted RFID reader flawlessly read the tag. Then the team ran the same pallet through an identically-configured adjacent dock door. Nothing happened. His team adjusted the RFID tag and tweaked the reader and antenna. Still nothing. After a couple of days, they stumbled upon the problem. The concrete floor of the second dock door was reinforced with rebar near the surface that interfered with the radio waves used to transmit data from the tag. Well, there's a situation you don't run into with "another data collection technology" (read: bar codes).

Unique problem, right? It's one in a million. Oh, but then there's that other top 100 supplier that wrestled with a similar issue. "Anyone who says RFID technology is 'plug-and-play' or 'just another data collection technology' needs to dig down into the concrete. Those statements are just not true," the supplier recently told me. Jackhammer, anyone?

RFID Means News Business Processes
RFID must clear many technological hurdles before it can be deployed on a large scale. (I believe vendors will resolve those issues. The current investment in the technology and its future potential are both too high to allow RFID to fade into the world of niche applications.) But any deployment of RFID -- large or small -- will require you to reevaluate and alter many of your current business processes. Even if RFID could be considered as "just another data collection technology," you are still faced with the daunting task of determining best practices for it within your enterprise.

Many analysts and vendors predict that RFID technology will similarly follow the adoption path of bar codes in the supply chain. Now, think back to when your company deployed bar code printers, handheld readers, wireless networks, and inventory management applications. The processes you put in place to accommodate that set of technologies were much different from the manual processes that preceded them. Face it; it was a complete overhaul. Additionally, there was a steep learning curve for your distribution center and warehouse employees. Sure, the technology worked. But, that was only part of the equation.

RFID may, indeed, become pervasive and deliver on all of the hype that surrounds it, but that claim is many years away from being proven true. By that time, who knows? RFID may actually be "just another data collection technology."