Packaging / Aseptic Processing

RFID: Where Do We Stand?

RFID has been a hot topic of conversation, thanks to the mega-retailers, the DOD and the FDA. But actual adoption of the technology has been tepid at best.

By Bert Moore, AIM Global

This year was supposed to be "The Year of RFID." And it was. Sort of.

There were an unprecedented number of pilots and implementations to both comply with — or anticipate — retail, Department of Defense and FDA mandates. The UHF Gen2 standard was finally submitted to ISO.

It was also a year of "The Big Wait and See." Many companies still can't see the ROI in RFID and, unless impelled by customer mandates, haven't even begun thinking about RFID.

The rationale is that equipment and standards aren't there, equipment and implementations will become easier and/or less expensive in a year or two, tag costs are too high, there aren't any Gen2 tags, and the FDA hasn't mandated anything. Most of that is true but all of that are insufficient reasons not to begin exploring RFID to determine which version of the technology best meets a company's needs.

It has been reported that pharma companies have told EPC they want 13.56 MHz for e-pedigree. However, some preliminary systems have been developed and tested using Gen1 UHF EPC tags for item tracking.

Purdue, for example, is running an extensive test of both UHF (920 MHz) and HF (13.56 MHz) tags to determine their suitability for e-pedigree applications. While it's true that other companies could cite the Purdue study as the reason to adopt a "wait and see" attitude, it won't answer the question of how either of these technologies would work in their facilities. And, unless the pharmaceutical industry makes its own recommendations (which it can't do unless it understands how the technologies work with all the variations in pharma), states like Florida will end up writing the e-pedigree rules, not the FDA.

Sound scary enough? It is.

So, where are we really with RFID? There's good news and bad news.

The good news:
  • Both Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense have indicated that they will continue to accept Gen1 EPC tags for the foreseeable future.

  • Quality of tags has risen significantly since early production runs.

  • The UHF Gen2 standard has been submitted to the international standards process through ISO. It is expected to be approved with only very minor changes (if any).

  • Reader/encoder manufacturers are ready with hardware — all of it capable of being upgraded or modified (via software) to accommodate any changes in Gen2/EPC air interface protocols.

  • Pre-production quantities of Gen2 tags are being introduced by nearly every major UHF chip and tag manufacturer.

  • HF (13.56 MHz) tags and hardware are readily available.
The bad news:
  • Full production of Gen2 tags hasn't yet begun.

  • Early production of Gen2 tags may suffer quality problems similar to Gen1.

  • Early Gen2 tags most likely won't include all the "bells and whistles" of the Gen2 specification (such as "dense reader mode" designed to help prevent inadvertent reads from closely-spaced reader portals).
Considering where the industry was last year and where everyone expected it to be this year, the news is both encouraging and discouraging:
  • We've come a long way but we haven't come as far as we should have.

  • There have been many lessons learned in how to implement RFID but not all have been shared.

  • Some companies have taken a good look at their operations and found a real ROI but many more companies haven't even begun to look internally and see only external roadblocks.

  • The hype has died down somewhat, allowing companies to get a more realistic view of RFID's limitations and potential — but that's also given companies an excuse to slack off.
Implementing RFID will be a significant expense — for infrastructure, edgeware/middleware, hardware and, oh yes, tags — but it will also require a significant expenditure of corporate will and human resources.

One might be tempted here to quote from Dickens' classic "A Tale of Two Cities" and claim, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." But that's simply not the case. It's neither as bad, nor as good, as it might have been.

We are at the tipping point. Those companies that invest only in infrastructure and hardware (or opt for "slap and ship") will see only the costs. Those that invest corporate will and human resources will be understand that implementing RFID technology is a secondary activity and that understanding their operations is the primary one — and the one that will sooner or later (and, to many companies' surprise, it has been much sooner) begin to reveal the ROI.

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