As you read in my article Informed Consent: Ethical Considerations of RFID, radio frequency identification is a network of transponders (tags), readers and software that enables automatic identification and tracking of items from remote locations. Each RFID tag contains an integrated circuit (IC), which is encrypted with a unique electronic product code (EPC) - essentially, an electronic fingerprint. When a tag passes within range of a reader, the EPC is transmitted to the reader through an antenna. The transaction is recorded and retained in the central database, providing real-time track-and-trace of the tagged item.
RFID is recognized as the natural successor to bar code technology, and has been tagged as a supply chain management tool by the retail, pharmaceutical and defense industries. RFID demonstrates substantial improvements in production and shipping efficiencies, and has been endorsed by the FDA, the U.S. Department of Defense and some of the nations largest retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's and Home Depot.
RFID Deployment in Rochester
In general, local companies describe a high degree of awareness and interest, but only a modest level of integration.
Why is there such a discrepancy between what local companies want to do with RFID and what they are actually doing? I spoke with some of Rochester's early adopters to put a local face on track-and-trace.
Leading folding carton manufacturer Diamond Packaging (Henrietta, NY) is currently evaluating available technologies for in-line applications of RFID tags. "Without question, RFID is one of the hottest topics in packaging", says Dennis Bacchetta, Marketing Manager at Diamond. "Companies are moving from 'Does it make sense?' to 'How can we implement RFID?' "
Indeed, RFID seems to make sense to many of the markets Diamond serves. Interest in item-level RFID tagging has been driven primarily by the pharmaceutical, personal care and cosmetic industries, which are particularly vulnerable to theft and counterfeiting. RFID tags are virtually incorruptible and almost impossible to counterfeit. Other obvious benefits include impeccable accountability from the point of manufacture to the point of sale, and precise, real-time inventory control.
If a company decides that RFID makes sense for them, what are some of the implementation issues they may deal with? According to Bacchetta, "The primary challenge is ensuring compatibility with various vendors in the supply chain."
RFID technology is so diverse in form and function that what might later be a strength is currently considered a limitation. Even if all of the parties in a supply chain have adopted an RFID system that works well for them, the individual systems may not work with each other at all.
Rick Howe, VP of Sales and Marketing at Hover-Davis, agrees. "RFID is evolving differently than a lot of people expected. There are dozens of different technologies. There are dozens of different markets, each with different needs."
Howe is in a good position to make that assessment. Hover-Davis is a Rochester-based company that is recognized as the principle designer and manufacturer of component delivery systems for the circuit board assembly industry. Among other things, Hover-Davis produces world class feeding systems for silicon wafers, including those used in RFID tags.
Although RFID applications currently represent less than 1% of Hover-Davis's market, Howe sees significant growth potential once RFID integration is purified. "RFID is evolving in a step function like a lot of disruptive technologies do. There needs to be a lot more maturation of technologies before item-level tagging can happen."
EPCglobal plays a key role in the maturation of RFID. EPCglobal is an international consortium of RFID manufacturers and end-users that is working to accelerate RFID's growth curve. Their mission is to create global standards for RFID implementation, such as operating frequency, read ranges, and middleware capabilities.
EPCglobal members are working cooperatively to standardize all aspects of RFID integration, including:
- Electronic Product CodeT (EPC)
- ID System (EPC tags, readers and interface protocols)
- EPC Middleware
- Discovery Services
- EPC Information Services (EPCIS)
- EPCglobal Network Reference Architecture
Some individual consumers and advocacy groups have expressed concern that RFID enables remote identification and monitoring that can compromise their privacy and personal security. RFID manufacturers and distributors have encountered organized media resistance to the spread of RFID into the consumer sector.
In order to advance business interests in balance with consumer concerns, EPCglobal developed and published their Guidelines on EPC for Consumer Products, designed "to allow EPC to realize its potential for consumers, retailers and suppliers, by addressing privacy concerns prompted by the current state of the technology while establishing principles for dealing with its evolution and implementation."
Rochester's own Wegmans Food Markets is well-known for demonstrating strong principles of community involvement. In addition to exploring internal applications for RFID, Wegmans continues to support the larger community by taking an active role in developing RFID standards.
Marianne Timmons is the director of Business to Business at Wegmans. "Wegmans is a member of EPCglobal and is exploring opportunities for a future implementation. Today Wegmans is focused on building a solid foundation for the future of EPC through their Data Synchronization efforts."
Other Challenges of RFID
Interroperability may be the primary challenge of wide-scale RFID deployment, but it certainly isn't the only one. Bacchetta identified two others: "A secondary concern is cost and the ability to ensure ROI. Finally, considerable work needs to be done to assess and compare the various tag technologies currently available."
Howe, too, cites cost and technology diversity as two issues that have caused people to redefine their understanding of RFID, and shift the benefit expectation from an item-level intervention to a middle-market tool, at least for now. "Many people thought that item-level tagging was going to become the utopia of the RFID industry. It's actually going much more in the direction of middle-market segments - pets, airline and ship cargo - seeping into middle-volume markets. RFID is not going to go from infancy to soup cans overnight."
The Future of RFID
The people I spoke with for this article are optimistic about the future of RFID. "These challenges are typical of any emerging technology", Bacchetta remarked. "None are insurmountable, and I expect that all will be resolved within the next few years."
Birds Eye Foods, the nation's leader in frozen vegetables, is a Rochester-based company that actively uses RFID in their supply chain management. As local market experience continues to grow, we can expect to find more companies following suit. There is clearly more work to be done before Rochester experiences an RFID revolution, but as the saying goes, "many hands make light work".
Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Computer Link magazine. Copyright ©2005 Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.
Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning freelance writer and sales trainer. She has published articles on a variety of topics, including sales training and motivation, pharmaceutical sales and emerging technologies. Read her latest articles on her freelance writer website.