Engineering RFID Tricks
The initial compromise has most retailers experimenting with UHF for backroom warehouse supply-chain tracking only, with HF being used for the initial item-level shelf experiments. HFs shorter read distance is preferable for item-level anyway because it can reduce readers "seeing" an unintended product.IDTechEx sees the UHF error ratescoupled with the likely increase in item-level experimentation in the next few yearscausing a seesaw effect with UHF versus HF purchases."Today, the cumulative sales of RFID, the majority arent high-frequency," Das said. By the end of, "2006, UHF will become the dominant frequency by tag volume sales. High-frequency will still have dominance for dollar value. By 2007, UHF will dominate in both. By 2010, HF will be the dominant frequency again." Das sees another potential downside for UHF use in item-level tracking. "Wal-Mart initially said that it wanted all drugs to be tagged with UHF," which might not work with a liquid drug, Das said. But another possibility is that the UHF tags could generate sufficient hurt to impact the product. "An RFID tag is like any electronic circuit. If its on, it will heat up," Das said. "At quite a high frequency, there is a chance that it could knock off some of the weak parts of a long molecule drug." Others in the RFID space doubted that the small RFID tags could generate sufficient heat to impact products. What there is almost universal agreement on among retail and consumer goods IT managers is that RFID is problematic, expensive, will require extensive investment and is absolutely worth it. "This is not an IT problem. This is an engineering problem," said a veteran IT manager at cigarette giant Phillip Morris, who asked that his name not be used. "Its not the time to shy away from it because everyone has a lot to learn. Were in for five years of incredibly painful learning. If you look at the Wal-Mart experience, it is certainly very concentrated on the learning side. Its a disruptive technology and it will change the nature of B2B." By an engineering problem, the Phillip Morris manager is referring to tweaks with positioning the chips and the pallets they are typically on, as well as reader positioning. "If you are transmitting and receiving these waves from one antennae, youre doomed," he said. "Thats how we have to organize, to make the network intelligent with diversity antennae systems, collaboratively scanning with multiple receivers." Asked how difficult it is to make such a process work reliably, the Phillip Morris manager said, "Damn tough, but the EPC reader spec allows for this, allows for collaborative readers." Yankee Group analyst John Fontanella agreed. "This absolutely is an engineering problem, but I believe most CIOs have a very accurate idea of the limitations of RFID," he said. "You need to have that pilot. You need to have that experience." Some envision RFID fears creating their own anti-RFID market. To read why, click here. Gerd Wolfram is the chief technology officer of the Metro Group, Germanys largest retail chain with about $68 billion in annual revenue, 2,400 stores in 30 countries and about 250,000 employees. Wolfram is quite familiar with the challenges surrounding RFID, but sees things getting better. "UHF on the pallet is not a problem. With Gen2, its getting better and better. Compared with Gen1, you read quicker, you read more and you get a better read rate. In the end, you can read more in a shorter time." But he wants more action from global standards groups. "Whats still missing is the standardization" from UPCGlobal, he said. He doesnt see the UHF vs. HF debate settled, but he is leaning toward the conventional approach. "There still is discussion whether we should use UHF for item-level tagging. The pro is that if you use UHF, then you only have one reader generation in the store," Wolfram said. "On the other hand, there are limitations [liquid and metal conflicts] that are not solved today. Were going to start with HF. I personally think it will be HF for the item level. Its the right technology." From the perspective of Stan Drobac, the VP of RFID strategy for RFID tag manufacturer Avery Dennison, Wolfram is ahead of the pack by simply having focused on it at such a specific level. "The whole question of UHF versus HF is a level of detail that many CIOs havent gotten into at all," he said. Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.