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Preparing for RFID

Even though many companies will be able to function fine without it, the technology should not be dismissed without kicking the tires.

September 1, 2004  

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With few exceptions, the introduction of new technology seems to follow a pattern.

First, a big noise is made about how this new thing will revolutionize our lives. Vaporware and Powerfully-Pointing People fill the speakers’ lists at conferences, presenting snappy Flash-driven visions of the happy masses using the new technology to do things that, frankly, often would be just as easy to do the old way.

Second, those early visions are shattered under the careful scrutiny of those who will be charged with figuring out how to implement the new technology.

Accountants warn it’ll be prohibitively expensive, marketing gurus find the potential users have privacy concerns, and executives just can’t see how it’s going to improve a business that’s already working like a well-oiled machine.

Third — and this doesn’t always happen, but it’s sweet when it does — somebody figures out an application for the new technology that wasn’t thought of by the developers, and while it’s not likely to revolutionize our lives, it does make some aspect of them a little easier.

I suspect this will be the pattern with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

Tag, you’re it!

RFID uses small tags that act like wirelessly-powered serial numbers. A scanner can read the tag from a short distance away, then use the tag’s information to look up data about the thing to which it’s attached.

The most-often discussed RFID application is that being tested by Wal-Mart and other retailers, to handle supply chain management.

Unlike bar codes, an RFID tag identifies an individual product, not just a product type, promising retailers a much clearer picture of their supply chain.

But RFID is already used for many other applications including employee access cards, payment systems at gas stations and on toll highways, identifying pets and livestock, tracking fish stocks, as ignition disablers in vehicles, checking out library books, airline baggage tracking — the list goes on.

However, RFID is still an emerging technology and there are challenges: the tags and scanners are expensive, managing the data generated by RFID can be a Sisyphean task, consumers fear they can be used to track people — again, the list goes on.

What’s more, many companies will likely continue to function just fine without it. Still, it should not be dismissed without kicking the tires (another product that may soon be RFID tag-equipped).

Instead, now is the time for companies to prepare for RFID, by learning about the technology, assessing how it could be used within the business, and reviewing processes and operations to optimize them for RFID.

Learning may be the easiest part. Many articles have been written about RFID in trade and general interest publications and it’s a regular topic at wireless conferences.

The September meeting of the Toronto Wireless User Group ( was devoted to the subject, with speakers from a systems designer, a wireless equipment maker and a telecom company. A show of hands indicated few attendees had actually worked on RFID projects and that most were there on fact-finding missions.

(I’m interested in hearing about groups like TorWUG in other Canadian cities. If you belong to one, send me an e-mail with a URL and contact information for those interested in attending meetings.)

The majority of industry analysts agree that incorporating RFID into most businesses will require real organizational and process changes, not the sort of thing any company wants to rush.

The big question is, based on a company’s business objectives and external factors like privacy laws, what type of data does it make sense to collect using RFID technology? (“As much as possible” is not a good answer. In a single day, a company like Wal-Mart can generate a few billion terabytes of data across its value chain. Storing and analyzing it would paralyze any business.)

Even if RFID is never adopted, a periodic review of data collection and management practices can only be good for business.

At a minimum, it will shed light on areas where companies can improve entrenched processes to make them more efficient.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or

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