A few years back, hype around RFID far surpassed end user knowledge on the subject. In this environment, some RFID solutions providers and systems integrators pitched RFID as "just another data collection technology." That's right, RFID is no different from bar codes. If you can read a bar code, you can read an RFID tag. Of course, this couldn't be further from the truth. RFID and bar codes are similar in the same way that Windows 3.0 and Vista are both operating systems.
This is not to say that there is not merit in the "just another data collection technology" theory. In fact, the lure of RFID as simply bar codes on steroids is pretty strong. You can almost picture what RFID would look like in that simplified context. Bar codes and RFID tags peacefully coexisting, each deployed in situations where it makes the most sense. Reading the tags, of course, would be just as seamless and efficient. Bar code and RFID readers would collect data in a choreographed routine where the employee would be led by a speech-directed picking and putaway solution. Some reads would be manual and others would happen without the employee's knowledge. All the while, a speech-enabled solution guides the employee from task to task, and updates occur in real time.
DEFINING RFID'S ROLE IN EXECUTION
There is no one who could disagree that the above scenario is a description of some sort of DC (distribution center) utopia. When vendors and solutions providers urge end users to broadly deploy RFID and create a road map for RFID within the company, this is the scenario that is envisioned. But, that's really the problem. This type of solution needs to be envisioned, because it's not a reality.
For its part, data collection solution provider LXE is taking a significant step toward integrating various forms of data collection technologies within the warehouse. At ProMat, the company introduced a platform on which data collection technologies — including bar codes, RFID, and speech recognition — could all be seamlessly integrated to improve the executions of warehouse transactions. The platform, ARIA (adaptive recognition and information assurance), was on display as demonstrations incorporated voice-guided picking, "talking" RFID tags, bar codes, and forklift-mounted RFID readers. In another demo, wearable data collection technologies were employed.
To my surprise, LXE is not pushing ARIA as an industry standard. Instead, LXE believes that many companies will begin to offer such platform solutions that allow multiple data collection technologies to seamlessly interact. (In LXE's case, that platform will be called ARIA.) With these platforms, systems integrators will then be able to integrate technologies and build applications that unify a presently disjointed picture.
I often hear that end users don't have any desire to further deploy RFID within their enterprises. They can't make a business case. They don't like being mandated. They don't have the budget. Good excuses all. However, what end users really want is a reason to deploy RFID that makes sense. They look at their warehouse operations and the cost of RFID and can't see a dramatic improvement in efficiency that will offset the cost of deployment. This platform, ARIA, and others in the future go a long way to address this pressing concern. It provides a clear path to integrating multiple data collection technologies and further optimizing your warehouse operations. Now, that's starting to sound like a solid business case.