By Chris Schaefer, Senior Director, Global Market Development, Motorola Solutions
It’s been more than 10 years since the term “RFID” burst into the public lexicon, and in those early days, the word “hype” was truly an understatement. Every technology company or services provider suddenly realized they were an RFID company, providing an integral piece of the RFID value proposition. “RFID experts” crawled out of the woodwork — presenting at every conference on how RFID would change the world. And media companies embraced the RFID buzz, nearly counting down the days to the death of the bar code.
A decade provides a nice perspective — a cushion of time that we can use to look back at where we’ve come from and where we are today. First and foremost, the hype around RFID dissipated after a few years, and the world realized that — like any emerging technology — lots of time, hard work, and real-world vetting of theoretical value propositions would need to take place. In the end, the eyes of the world moved on to other things.
During this respite from public attention, the industry made a lot of progress. RFID has evolved into an important component to asset and inventory visibility solutions, driving efficiency gains and cost reductions. It has taken 10 years, but RFID is clearly ready for prime time. Let me give you five reasons why.
Reason 1: The buzz about RFID has subsided
Remember that “hype” I mentioned? Well, it clearly has died down. Most businesses don’t care about which technology solves their problems — they just want their problems solved. When all you hear about is how important a technology will be and how many problems it will solve, then it clearly is not there yet and likely still has a lot to prove. Think about it this way — when was the last time that you heard about a bar code conference? The bar code value proposition is proven, and there is no need to seek out solutions that incorporate bar code technology because they are everywhere. Bar code scanning has become a standard data capture tool that is a vital component in many tracking and visibility solutions. RFID has evolved in the same way, and the more it becomes a standard component of system solutions, the less we will hear about it. No longer do customer inquiries start with questions about RFID — what it is and how it works. Rather, they start with discussions about business problems and the best way to apply technology to solve them.
Reason 2: RFID has become just another tool in the toolbox
In the last few years, RFID has matured to the point where it has become just another tool in the toolbox — and this is a great thing. The efficacy and business value of RFID has been proven by numerous research institutions and end-user customers. It is now applied alongside — or integrated with — other complementary data capture or data management technologies (i.e. wireless, Bluetooth, bar code scanning, ERP systems, etc.) to provide a complete business solution. Many solution providers have integrated RFID into their offerings — solutions like IT asset tracking, file management, specimen tracking, retail inventory management, work in process tracking and many more. Many people who use and benefit from these solutions don’t even know they incorporate RFID. And yes, that is a good thing — because it just works, and that is all that matters.
Reason 3: The RFID toolbox is big
Another reason that RFID is really ready for prime time is the fact that there are so many different types of RFID technology options (UHF, LF, HF, passive, active, semi-passive) with different capabilities. Why is this important? The growing flexibility with which RFID technologies can be applied is in turn continually expanding the types of business problems that the technology can help solve. Do you need long-range tracking on the field of engagement? Try an active RFID system. Want a cost-effective system for tracking assets on a loading dock? Let’s use a UHF-based portal system that uses passive tags. Having trouble managing your retail store shoe inventory? Try applying RFID labels to your inventory and cycle counting with a handheld RFID mobile computer.
Reason 4: The tools just keep coming
There is a greater breadth of RFID equipment, tag, and software options today than ever before. However, just one decade ago, the world of RFID revolved around basic supply chain applications that required rugged fixed RFID readers, antennas, and portals. As businesses required more flexibility in regard to where and when they used RFID, vendors figured out how to integrate RFID antennas into handheld mobile computers — ones that were designed specifically for business use in customer-facing applications. At the same time, tag and antenna options exploded, providing businesses with more cost-effective and flexible options for applying RFID to business problems. RFID reader and tag form factors continue to evolve today — expanding the benefits of RFID to more industries, applications, and environments. For example, handheld mobile devices can now transform into RFID readers simply by slipping them onto a handheld RFID sled. More overhead RFID reading solutions are becoming available — striving for the ultimate goal of complete RFID system automation that eliminates the need for human intervention. As RFID options continue to multiply, it is easier for businesses to find the right tool for the right problem at the right time in the right place.
Reason 5: And the tools just keep getting better
As with any technology, economies of scale in combination with technology innovation have benefitted the end user when it comes to RFID solutions. Not only are RFID readers, tags and software applications more compact, more powerful, and easier to use, but they are also more affordable, higher quality and higher performing. Gone are the dark days when tag failure rates sometimes reached 10 percent or when an RFID portal looked like something out of a mad scientist’s lab. Today, there are a myriad of RFID solution options that are sleek and unobtrusive. Some products offer power-over-Ethernet (PoE) options or wireless capabilities that reduce the footprint of a solution and the cost of installation. Others are even plenum rated — which means they are certified for installation above ceiling tiles or behind walls — making them virtually invisible. And the established industry standards ensure a base level of equipment interoperability and performance thus reducing the investment risk.
Forget about the past, the excessive hype, the mandates, and the carnival atmosphere that colored the early days of RFID. RFID has matured to the point where it is a valuable and proven technology. When it is integrated with other complementary technologies and applied to the right business problem, it can transform existing processes, drive productivity gains and reduce costs.
For information on how RFID can help with omni-channel retailing, see Motorola’s “Fresh Ideas In Enterprise Mobility” blog post Item By Item: Improving Omnichannel Retailing With RFID.