It's very likely that we are all going to be hearing a lot about RFID in
the next few years. RFID currently has that kind of wired buzz that
technologies get when they are about to achieve critical mass. RFID, or
Radio Frequency IDentification is a location tracking technology that
basically consists of tiny, inexpensive short-range radio transmitter tags,
each with a unique ID number, that are applied to consumer products. The
transmitters announce their presence to sensitive radio receivers in
warehouses, shipping depots, and retail stores. This allows products to be
tracked, "from cradle to grave." Real-time tracking could
revolutionize the supply chain by allowing retailers to automate the ordering
and restocking of their shelves, shippers to automate their shipment handling
and manufacturers to know exactly where their inventory is.
RFID technology has been around since the 1980's in one form or another2,
but in the last few years it has advanced significantly in the areas of
reductions in both size and cost of the transmitters. Modern RFID
transmitters are cheap (about $.05 U.S. each), and small (about the size of a
grain of sand). Modern RFID tags are powered inductively by the receiver,
so they don't need a battery, and each one contains its own tiny antenna
suitable for short range broadcasting.
At first glance one might be amused at the thought of a million tiny voices
all mindlessly shouting the only word they know at the top of their little
electronic lungs day and night. Consider this however; the waste and
inefficiency inherent in the manufacturing and distribution process results in
hundreds of millions of dollars of lost and waste every year due to products
that are lost, stolen, or out of stock. According to the Auto-ID Center
at MIT3, RFID promises to alter that equation completely.
The Gillette Company makes razors, blades and related leg shaving hair-scraping
products. Their Chicago, Illinois Chicago distribution center alone
occupies 532,000 square feet (think of a square building over 730 feet or 220
meters on each side). This warehouse is designed to store 50,000 pallets of
Gillette products with a retail value of over $60,000,000 U.S. For
their initial pilot program in the world of RFID, Gillette has announced that it
will purchase five hundred million(!) RFID tags. They will use these to
tag every pallet and every case of product they ship. Alien Technology,
the company supplying Gillette is just the first big winner in the RFID lottery.
RFID will allow Gillette to follow each pallet and case as it proceeds from
manufacturing, to the warehouse. From the warehouse to the shipping dock, onto
the truck, and at the receiving dock at its final destination, say the local
supermarket. But wait, there's more. At the supermercado, the
Gillette products will be stocked on, "smart shelves," for consumer
access. These shelves will let the store know when they "need"
more razor blades stocked, and the shelves in the back room will notify the
store when it's time to reorder . The cash registers will recognize the
products without the clerk having to scan a barcode, and don't even think about
stuffing that Gillette Mach 3 down your pants!
I'm going to extrapolate a little here and imagine that we actually have that
Internet refrigerator touted by billG and the other techno luminaries.
If you combine RFID, Internet-enabled appliances and an online grocery
retailer like Peapod, the whole story could get really weird. Consider the
RFID house that just orders all the crap you need without bothering to ask.
My Palm Pilot 2005 sez aloud, when it senses that I've entered the room
via my RFID wristwatch:
"Don't worry your pretty little head about it Grouch, I already
ordered a sushi platter and a case of that Australian Shiraz you liked. I'm
still waiting for you to select some entree's for next week (hint,
hint), and by the way, don't forget your daughter's orthodontics appointment
Meanwhile, a nondescript grey truck prowls the neighborhood slowly and
suspiciously. There's a small antenna on the top,
And, I wince slightly and say, to my tiny electronic audience, "Thanks,
guys, good job..."
- Sept 2003: Privacy advocates raised alarms regarding RFID technology in California State legislative hearings recently. Beth Givins of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse said, "RFID is essentially invisible and can result in both profiling and locational tracking of consumers without their knowledge or consent." She was seconded by Liz McIntyre, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, who said, "Without some sort of oversight, this technology could create a very frightening society." RFID industry spokesmen have responded by describing plans for RFID tags that can be disabled on checkout for retail customers.
- Nov 2003: McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas, Nevada has signed a five year contract with Matrics Inc. to purchase one hundred million RFID tags for deployment on passenger luggage. According to an airport spokeman, the tags will be used to ensure that all baggage has been processed by the airport security systems. Sam Ingalls, the airport IT manager says, "RFID is the only technology that allows us to get a 99.5+%" assurance that bags have been properly screened.
- 19 Jan 2004: Verisign, wins the contract to operate Object Naming Service (ONS) the equivalent of the Internet's DNS system for RFID. ONS will store all the Electronic Product Codes (EPC) assigned to products with RFID tags. The EPC system was created by the non-profit corporation EPCglobal, and the AutoID Center at MIT. The ONS root directory is already operational according to Stratton Sclavos, who heads Verisign.
- Jan 2004: In the wake of the recent bovine spongiform encephalopathy scare, the American meat industry has lined up behind a proposal for the RFID-based National Animal Identification Tag. Proponents claim that a similar system already in place in Michigan would have reduced the time required to track down the infected animal to minutes instead of the two weeks it took FDA scientists to wade through the mountain of paper records used to trace the affected herd and recall beef that might have been exposed. Meat industry experts say the RFID deployment could cost nearly $600 million over the next six years. <-p>
- Jan 2004: Infosys Technologies Ltd. an Indian service company is proposing a global delivery model for RFID processing, data storage and analysis. This service targets the growing concerns among IT managers about the logistics involved in managing the flood of data RFID systems are expected to produce. It has been estimated that RFID tracking of all the products in all the Walmart stores would generate hundreds of terabytes of data per day.
- Feb 2004: RSA Security Inc. has unveiled a RFID "Blocker Tag" intended to keep other nearby tags from being read. This is in response to the privacy concerns being voiced by civil libertarians, and consumer advocates. The blocker tag would be used to prevent RFID readers from gathering data from merchandise that consumers are carrying with them as they shop. The blocker "fools" RFID readers by responding multiple times to a single query thus preventing the reader from getting valid data.
Feb 2004: California State Senator Debra Bowen says she is planning to introduce legislation that will restrict the use of RFID tags in retail applications, while allowing it for pallet and case usage.
- Feb 2004: SAP recently unveiled new supply chain software that was created from the ground up to accommodate RFID functionality. According to InfoWorld Magazine, IBM, Oracle, Sun and Microsoft, all have RFID offerings under development.
- Feb 2004: International Paper Corporation reports that it's RFID deployment has been so successful that the company plans to market its RFID expertise to other companies under consulting agreements. According to Alan Clark at IP, "RFID promises to revolutionize the businesses manage their supply chains."
- April 2004: Shorecliff Communications presents RFID World, a conference and exhibition billed as, "The most important technology event you will attend in 2004." Industry experts anticipate that this will be the single most heavily attended IT event of the year. The research firm IDC projects the market for RFID services to grow from $23 million in 2003 to over $270 million in 2007. Over the same period, REID hardware spending is expected to reach $875 million per year.