1. Part 6: Improvement Areas for RFID
Data integrity issues are a problem, so right now companies are dealing with this. I’m working on a story for the next issue of the magazine. Wal-Mart is reading this [data] and they’re trying to send this data back to the companies. Well, the quality of the data is not very good, frankly. So what happens is Wal-Mart may read 20 cases out of a pallet of 40. It reports back, “We got 20 cases,” and the manufacturer&rsquot;s [says], “Yeah, but I sent you 40. What happened?” So the read rates have to get up, and the system reliability needs to improve. People need to be able to filter the data and figure out what to do [with] the data. Right now there is a lack of clear ROI on the manufacturer’s side.
If you’re ordering your customers to put tags on, there’s plenty of ROI for you. If you’re the guy paying for the tags, the ROI isn’t there right now. But the leading early adopters, strangely, are not giving up. I was just in Kimberly Clark’s lab, and they’ve invested a couple of million dollars in a very sophisticated lab where they’ve got conveyers [that] test new readers, new reader configuration in tags in a real-world environment.
Wal-Mart is plowing ahead with this. You hear stories: Wal-Mart, they’re supposed to hit 600 stores in October, now they’re saying 600 stores at the end of the year and that’s a big deal. Wal-Mart is missing its deadline. Twenty years from now, when RFID is everywhere, I don’t think anyone is going to remember that Wal-Mart missed its 600-store deadline by two or three months.
[The] DOD’s moving ahead aggressively. They’ve had some trouble implementing some of the debar rules that they are required to issue to their suppliers, but that’s moving ahead.
Boeing and Airbus are moving ahead. The parts on next generation planes will have RFID tags on them. The benefit of that is every airplane part has to have paperwork associated to it, so you can track that part uniquely. There are over a million parts on a Boeing 777. This system will enable them to scan an RFID tag very quickly and look up all the data associated with that part: What is the part history, when it was refurbished, when it’s taken off the plane, when it was put on another plane, and so on so forth.
So everybody keeps saying, “This is the big year for RFID,” and they’ve been saying that for three, four, five years now. 2006 is not the big year for RFID, and the reason is all those problems I mentioned before the integration—getting the technology to work better. These guys are working through all of these issues, and they’re not going to be solved in January. That means that things take off in the middle of the year. It’s going to take time to solve. It’s going to take work to figure out what to do with this data. Companies are doing all this work now. It’s not going to be finished this year even. So I don’t expect to see billions and billions of tags being used in 2006. Companies will continue to evolve. They’ll continue to roll out new facilities, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some real time.
Once they have a clearer path to an ROI, then you’ll see them start placing some big orders for tags and readers. In conclusion, I would say that RFID is part of this larger wireless evolution. Companies are not just putting 802.11 in their warehouses, so [that] they can track goods and communicate with forklift drivers telling them what to pick up. Now they’re actually extending it to the product, so when the forklift driver goes and picks up something, the reader in the forklift says, “That’s not what you’re supposed to pick up; put it back down.” I kid you not, that is what people are doing. So they’re communicating wirelessly 802.11 with WMS (the warehouse system) and saying, “OK, the forklift driver has a terminal there,” and, “I’m going to pick this thing up. What do I do with this? It goes back to WMS; that goes to dock door three.” A reader there says, “Wait a minute, this is dock door two. You’re supposed to go to dock door three.” He gets an alert, backs up, and puts it in the right place. That’s where we’re going with this, so it’s all coming together. It’s all part of one thing; it’s not simply we’re tracking boxes in the supply chain.
What we’re doing is we’re spreading the intelligence out to the edge of the network, so the opportunities exist for all companies in this market. Don’t expect to get rich by 2006—it won’t happen. Companies are looking for test equipment. They’re looking for better performing readers. They’re looking for innovative antenna designs, new tag designs. There’s all kinds of innovation that companies are looking for to help this system work better, so they can deploy them and they’ll be more plug and play than they are today, where you have to shield things and you have to do all kinds of leaping through hoops so things work properly.
Here are a couple of sources of information. Obviously the RFID Journal, the RFID Alliance Lab which does some independent test work, and the Auto-ID Labs (the guys who actually develop the electronic product code). They’ve got some research groups. They’ve got special interest groups in packaging, network architecture, and counterfeiting, and many other things. So if you’ve got some technology that might play into this area—that may help companies design better packaging that is more ROI friendly or whatever—you can join these things. Whatever IP is developed is owned by the groups, and it’s a way to meet potential costumers because some of the big players, like Kimberly Clark and Gillette, are also part of these groups. Finally there’s EPCglobal. EPCglobal is the nonprofit organization that is promoting EPC adoption. They have business action groups, so everybody in the airline industry comes together in business actions groups and talks about the needs for the airline industry: “What do we need to make this work for us?”
The guys in the CPG industry are getting together: “What do we need? What systems do we need in place to make this work for us?”. It’s a way of sharing ideas; it’s a way of influencing the standards that are developed, a way the data is collected, [and a] way the data is shared. You’ll have a say in that by participating in these groups, so it’s a good source of information.
2. Solution for Testing RFID Readers (Interrogators) and Tags
VI Services Network, a NI Alliance Member, currently offers a complete test system for testing RFID readers and tags.
The test system is based on the following NI products:
- Vector Signal Generator
- RF Signal Analyzer
- PXI Chassis and Controllers
- LabVIEW Graphical Programming Environment