TECH TALK: Tech’s 10X Tsunamis: RFIDs (Part 2)

Business Week (July 8, 2002) had an article entitled The End of the Road for Bar Codes, which discussed how RFID could revolutionise retailing:

In stores, RFID enables salespeople to locate and read tags at a distance–a big advantage over bar code systems, which require line-of-sight between the reader and the colored stripes. In warehouse settings, RFID systems can inventory an entire building full of goods with minimal human supervision.

In March, Marks & Spencer, one of Britain’s largest retailers, began replacing bar codes with an RFID system in its $4.4 billion fresh-food business. The company is putting radio tags on all of the 3.5 million plastic containers it uses to tote food from suppliers to stores. Before, suppliers had to print bar-coded labels for each of the 7 million bins M&S handles every week. Now, each time one of M&S’s 340 suppliers packs one of these bins, the system encodes shipment data–including product codes, quantities, and expiration dates–onto RFID tags embedded in the cartonThanks to increased handling efficiencies, less spoiled food, and fewer lost shipments, M&S expects to recoup its $3 million smart tag investment in three years.

To bring the cost [of the smart tags] down, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is heading an ambitious project called the Auto-ID Center, backed by 52 companies including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart. The plan is to develop a common language of electronic product codes to identify billions of items, and to slash the cost of RFID tags to 5 cents by 2005–cheap enough to embed a tag in each can of Coke.

In a recent article, the Economist (August 15, 2002) wrote about the future direction of tracking technologies: The new generation of tracking devices combines two existing technologies. One is a global-positioning-system (GPS) chip, which uses radio signals from a network of satellites to work out where it is on the earth’s surface to within a few metres. The other is a mobile-telephone chip, which broadcasts that location to whoever needs to know it. The result is a pocket-sized, or even wrist-sized, personal locator.

It gives the example of Applied Digital Solutions (ADS), of Palm Beach, Florida, which calls its version of the technology a digital angel:

The angel comes in two versions. People get a pager-like device that clips on to their clothing. Animals get a collar. The digital angel can also issue an alert when its wearer has fallen down, or when there has been an unexpected change in local temperature of the sort that might be caused, say, by someone falling into a pond. For that to happen, the wearer needs to sport a specially modified wristwatch which has suitable sensors and a wireless link to the pager.

ADS’s device is a type of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip. When an RFID chip is interrogated by a reading machine operating at the right radio frequency, its antenna picks up a small amount of energy from the signal. This is used to power the chip. The device then broadcasts data in the chip back to the reader.

Glover, in his HBR article, provides a glimpse of the future of object-to-object communications: Already, sensors and network of readers are making possible sophisticated four walls applications that can be carried out within the confines of a facility, an organization or (if the company is large, like Wal-mart) a corporate ecosystemSomeday we may well have a universally accepted standard for communication and a globe-spanning infrastructure of readers. At that point, objects will have wide-ranging and deep conversations with other objects, and their silent form of commerce will be the rule. Glover gives examples of the possibilities A to Z Product Tracking, Proactive Products, Variable Pricing, Continuous Selling.

Think of RFIDs as the next wave in communications: we first had people talking to people (through language and publications), then we had people interacting with computers (through the Internet, HTML and HTTP), now we are seeing applications talk to other applications (through Web Services). The next leap will be objects talking to other objects. When that happens, life will, truly, never be the same again.

Tomorrow: Displays

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.