Tag, you’re it! If it only were so easy for businesses that need to track and manage their inventory – all those cartons and individual products, in storage, in transit, and on retail shelves. Packages have a way of being in motion, whether intentionally or illicitly, and businesses need quick and cost-effective ways to keep track of them. Manually counting and scanning and re-checking just does not cut it in these days of just-in-time inventory.
The holy grail for a wide range of industries is tagging with RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – a technology that allows information about an object to be read wirelessly, using radio waves. Even better than manually scanning a barcode, RFID allows a remote reader to count the contents of a shipment or update the current inventory on store shelves, automatically and on demand.
For New Jersey travelers, the most familiar use of RFID is the EZ-Pass electronic toll collection system used in the Northeast U.S. (www.ezpass.com). Just attach the small tag to your windshield (behind the rear view mirror), and you can avoid the long lines at toll plazas by rolling through the EZ-Pass lanes (at a moderate speed, of course). The system reads your ID as you pass through the toll booth, and automatically deducts the toll from your account as you drive on.
But beyond this kind of convenience factor, RFID offers compelling benefits to industry in improving efficiency and reducing costs. Warehouses now use handheld barcode scanners. Someone can stand far away with an RFID reader, and the RFID identification tags contain much more information than barcodes do.
Demand from major retailers including Wal-Mart and Target, and from the Department of Defense, is driving adoption throughout the supply chain. In particular, Wal-Mart established aggressive mandates for its suppliers to implement RFID tagging of cases and pallets for its distribution centers, with a January, 2005, milestone for its top 100 suppliers, and January, 2006, for the next top 200 suppliers.
"The problem they are trying to solve is empty shelves at the retail store, the same problem they have been trying to solve for the last 30 year," says D’Anne Hotchkiss, a Princeton-based editor of supply chain trade publications.
RFID tags have been used on guards in a Ohio prison. If movements indicate that the guard is in distress, an alarm is sounded. Recently RFID tags prevented the abduction of a baby in a hospital nursery. "Because the tag was read when it passed a checkpoint, the hospital went into a lockdown mode to prevent the person from escaping," says Hotchkiss.
Another healthcare use is to access crucial equipment. Currently the anesthesiologist enters a password into a computer screen to take drugs from an emergency room cart, but RFID technology would allow for quicker access in a medical emergency. If the doctor moves too far away, the cart would lock. "Eventually they will use it for maintaining inventory on that cart," says Hotchkiss.
Avante Technologies on Washington Road is selling tags to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (see page 18 tk). And paper labels with easily changeable electronic tags are the potential products for Visible-Techknowledgy, an RFID firm that recently moved from the Forrestal campus (see page 18).
Then there are the many promising consumer applications for RFID. Remote Play, a Brunswick Pike-based firm, has just brought to market a child safety product that lets parents know when children wander out of range. Called "Child Alert," it began to sell nationwide in early October (see sidebar, page 14).
RFID seems poised to grow in influence by leaps and bounds. It would seem to hold a world of promise as the next great career path. Where, you might ask, is the bandwagon so I can join the RFID crowd?
Where indeed? It’s not an easy answer, because RFID is a young industry and its standards and certifications are in flux. EPC Global, a not-for-profit organization on Lenox Drive, is trying to help set RFID standards worldwide, but that effort is not a slam dunk. As for training, DeVry University has partnered with another group to offer RFID certification classes at its North Brunswick location in November. But DeVry’s program must compete with a test being launched by CompTIA, the established trade group.
Insiders compare the current state of RFID to the 1980s, when the Beta video format was duking it out with VHS. "It’s the wild wild West," says Harry Pappas, president of the International RFID Business Association (RFIDba), a not-for profit, vendor neutral, educational trade association that aims to establish standards for RFID education and certification. It is based in McLean, Virginia (www.rfidbusiness.org).
Training and Certification
Tensions between competing RFID factions are most visible at the level of training and certification opportunities. In one corner are the training courses offered by RFID Technical Institute Inc. (RTI) at DeVry University, one of the largest publicly held higher education companies in North America (www.devry.edu). RTI was launched in January in Cambridge, Massachusetts (www.rfidtech.com). Ann Grackin, the start-up’s CEO, is a former consultant in the supply chain and logistics industries.
RTI’s DeVry courses run on two tracks. The business track is for managers who need to know how to deploy RFID systems, and the technical track is for those who need hands-on work in installing and testing equipment.
A weeklong introductory course will launch DeVry’s program on Route 1 North in North Brunswick on Monday, November 28. Cost: $4,950. It covers the fundamentals of RFID, including how tags and readers communicate, how the technology can be applied in various industries, and how electronic product codes work. Caution: The North Brunswick campus has little or no information on RTI courses because they are offered through DeVry’s Center for Corporate Education and are not part of the standard DeVry program. Prospective students need to contact RTI directly at 877-784-7343 or go to the website.
Once students move through introductory and advanced sessions, they will be ready for seminars with an industry-specific focus, such as the retail supply chain, the pharmaceutical supply chain, health care, and aerospace. RTI offers these seminars on its own, and it will give one of the one-day courses at Devry’s North Brunswick campus, RFID for clinical settings, on Wednesday, November 30. Cost: $1,195.
RTI is associated with Pappas’ organization, RFIDba, which is providing input on curriculum content and certification testing. To develop a work standards model and issue the certificates, RFIDba is working with Applied Skills & Knowledge (AS&K), a Morristown firm that specializes in the development and validation of work standards and assessments (www.appliedskills.com). AS&K has the imprimatur of the National Skill Standards Board and such clients as Ingersoll-Rand, Merrill Lynch, and Verizon.
So DeVry and RTI are in one corner.
In the other corner is the Computing Technology Industrial Association (CompTIA) a not-for-profit trade organization that is devising what it believes will be the preferred RFID certification test (www.comptia.org).
CompTIA does not do training. "We push out the requirements for certification and the commercial companies and colleges align their curriculum to our certification," says CompTIA’s David Sommer, vice president of electronic commerce. A 1973 alumnus of Purdue with an MBA from Northwestern, Sommer has been at CompTIA for five years.
With roots in the reseller community, CompTIA has more than 20,000 member companies. As the world’s largest vendor neutral IT certification body, it has certified more than 600,000 people worldwide in 11 major fields and is second in IT certifications only to Microsoft. (Coincidentally, both CompTIA and DeVry are headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois.)
CompTIA teams with the leading trade association for automatic identification, AimGlobal, for its RFID projects. Based in Pittsburgh, AimGlobal represents the manufacturers, distributors, and resellers of barcoder and RFID technology, and many of its members are also CompTIA members.
‘We were approached late last year to put in a certification on RFID technology skills," says Sommer, "and we pulled together a cornerstone committee of 21 companies to decide the content and scope and help us roll it out." CompTIA will enroll 300 people for a beta version of its test next month and plans to roll out the finished test next spring.
"We have two respected not-for-profit organizations – AimGlobal and CompTIA – with long established relationships with academic institutions and major companies such as Texas Instruments, Intermec, Symbol, and ScanSource supporting the certification," says Sommer. "Therefore I believe there will be wide industry support for the CompTIA test." About 3,000 people are expected to take this test in 2006.
Rob Sabella of OTA Training LLC leads the charge to do training for the CompTIA test; he wrote the study guide for it. His Dallas-based company is vendor neutral, but it teaches at vendor locations so that students get real world experience (www.otatraining.com).
OTA taught a three-day course earlier this month at Acusort Systems, a provider of RFID and barcode systems in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, about an hour west of Princeton (www.acusort.com). "The three day course is designed to give you enough background to prepare you for the tough decisions when embarking on an RFID implementation project," says Sabella. Cost: $3,495. Call 972-386-9655 for future dates.
"We have the only CompTIA approved quality curriculum for the CompTIA test," says Sabella.
A 1983 graduate of Boston College with a master’s in philosophy and a law degree as well, Sabella did RFID placement before founding this firm. "Now it is about tags and readers, but ultimately it is about the middleware, how you take the data into your systems and make it actionable. We need people who understand that."
Data synchronization is the key word. "No one is talking about that now, but that is where consulting companies are going to make their money. They will need big teams of people to make that happen," says Sabella.
EPCGlobal on Lenox Drive
If you have ever tried to integrate two databases, even on a simple level, you know how complicated it can be. But the real potential for RFID in the supply chain will come when everyone uses it, and everyone’s data is synchronized.
Synchronizing data under the barcode system is already saving money by controlling inventory. If RFID can synchronize data, the estimated payoff could be from $10 billion to $20 billion a year, say the experts at EPCglobal US, one of the not-for-profit companies on Lenox Drive that is devoted to supply chain technology.
EPGlobal US and the related organizations (GS1US and 1Synch) have 200 employees between them. EPCglobal (a worldwide group) and EPCglobal US are developing Electronic Product Code (EPC) and RFID standards.
Similarly, the EPC and UCC barcode standards are being coordinated by GS1 US Inc., also based in Lawrenceville. Formerly known as Uniform Code Council, it was formed by the combination of Uniform Code Council Inc. and EAN International (www.gs1us.org). GS1US, a member organization of Brussels-based GS1, has strong alliances with consumer products companies and retailers, such as P&G and Wal-Mart.
Though these firms don’t say much about their struggles in public, they are fighting to keep the superior position that they enjoyed when barcode technology reigned supreme. New technology has spurred competition.
"In the beginning there were 20 barcode standards. It’s like VHS versus Betamax. It’s the same exact moment in time," says Sabella. "Japan or China could come up with a different standard."
EPCGlobal’s technology has roots in the laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says CompTIA’s David Sommer. This technology governs how tags talk to readers and the software architecture for interacting with the data after it is collected from the tags.
Now EPCglobal has a royalty-free RFID standard that solution providers can use to build new products. EPC is trying to get worldwide acceptance of this standard and hopes to get it approved. There are no competing EPC standards, says a spokesperson, though other RFID standards exist for other applications.
Lurking on the horizon is China. "The only potential wrinkle is that China has not yet said it will accept the Gen2 standard. Given that China is the major supplier to the major retailers, how it is going to play out is a question mark," says Sommer.
"EPC Global was the heir apparent, smug and all set, but there has been some new doubt that it may not ultimately be the standard or the only standard," says an insider who did not want to be named in print. For instance, the U.S. Department of Defense says it will accept the EPCGlobal standard but has not ruled out accepting other standards.
"The issues around a host of standards are important," says Ann Grackin of RTI, "for firms that have been ‘buying the message’ that RFID is more than barcodes on steroids. Integration standards, global frequencies, Gen 2 and its IP issues. All these add to the challenges. However, this is the normal course of public debate, entrepreneurship, and competition. We have been here before and we work it out – we don’t stop; we discuss, compete, and move forward."
RFID has its standards, but data synchronization is a business process. GS1US aims to get 200,000 companies to sign on to EPCGlobal’s data synchronization network (GDSN). It will be a challenge, especially when you consider that it took nearly 30 years to get everyone signed on to the barcode. Just 4,000 companies have signed up so far for GDSN, according to an EPCGlobalUS spokesperson.
Another not-for-profit company on Lenox Drive has been formed to help streamline the data synchronization process. UCCNet, a sister company to Uniform Code Council, was a service provider for barcodes. Recently UCCNet changed its name and merged with a for-profit Chicago-based firm, Transora. The combined companies are now known as 1SYNC, a not-for-profit subsidiary of GS1US.
Bob Noe, Transora’s former CEO, is the CEO of the new company. Of the new company’s 160 employees, about 40 are here.
"1SYNC will help trading partners better work together to arrive at a single data synchronization solution," said Noe in a statement. "We can help everyone avoid bottlenecks that result from inaccurate information that exists throughout the supply chain."
1SYNC has more than 4,200 customer members that subscribe to the data synchronization service. "They use their own hardware and their own software. We provide the onboarding capability, to register their products, and we provide tools, software to enter the data into global registry," says a spokesperson.
Most companies using RFID are also employing the older barcode technology, "At the item level they are using barcodes, and at the container level, using RFID," says Pete Settles, spokesperson for GS1US. "Companies are seeing a lot to be gained by using RFID to move from manufacturing to the warehouse, but you will see the coexistence of RFID and barcoding for a long time."
"There is tremendous momentum," says Jack Grosso, a spokesperson. "There are new industries on board, and we have certified products in the last six weeks. People can buy products that are in compliance with the standard."
GS1 (US) and EPC Global US, 1009 Lenox Drive, Suite 202, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-620-0200; fax, 609-620-1200. Miguel Lopera. www.epcglobalinc.org
1Synch, 1009 Lenox Drive, Suite 115, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-620-4600; fax, 609-620-1200. Bob Noe. www.uccnet.org
RFID deployment is not a done deal. Deployment is hampered by standardization issues, intellectual property conflicts, and compatibility of existing products with upgrades to new Generation 2 standards.
There are cost issues in getting tagged with RFID, especially for low-margin retailers, both for tags and for the required readers. The reader broadcasts radio waves and receives back signals from the tag, which it passes on as digital data to the IT system. The microchip in the tag can store up to a couple kilobytes of data, not only identifying the contents, but also including information such as shipment tracking or product delivery dates.
The goal of a five-cent tag is still not at hand. Simple passive RFID tags can cost 20 to 40 cents. These are basically a microchip attached to an antenna, with no power source and no transmitter, and can be read from only a short distance (a few inches to 30 feet). They can be used for tagging individual items, and can be enclosed in a plastic card or key fob (as with the Exxon Mobil Speedpass payment system).
Active tags can be read from longer distances (up to 300 feet), and are used for large assets, such as cargo containers, rail cars, and palettes. These include a transmitter and power source to broadcast their information for identification and tracking, and can cost $10 to $50.
But the broad range of possibilities for RFID is being demonstrated by the interest of the U.S. State Department in RFID for E-passports. Of course, it’s not necessarily a good idea for American citizens to be broadcasting their existence as they walk through the streets of foreign countries, much less transmitting the details of their personal identification to eavesdroppers. New proposals therefore suggest encrypting the information, and providing a radio shield to muffle the chip when the passport is closed. The State Department is also encouraging other countries to adopt similar systems.
The bottom line on RFID adoption, says Grackin:
"Many RFID programs are quietly moving along, since they are not caught up in the world of standards, and also are dealing with proven (and older) technologies. And once people come to understand the long-life uses of these technologies, the relative price issues will be less of a mental obstacle. It’s a simple formula: how long you will use a device and what value it will deliver, protect, etc. A seven year product purchased for $100 that guards 100 shipments a year with electronic components of high value, and prevents theft, starts to look pretty cheap. In time people will understand."