RFID Carries Promise and Pitfalls, IT Vendors Tell FCC

By Jacqueline Emigh  |  Posted 2004-10-08

RFID Carries Promise and Pitfalls, IT Vendors Tell FCC

RFID carries both promise and pitfalls, and there are alternative supply chain technologies that can do a better job in many circumstances, IT vendors told the Federal Communications Commission during an all-day RFID Workshop on Thursday.

Further, how RFID is implemented will vary according to the application, said some of speakers at the event, held in Washington, D.C., and broadcast live over the Web.

Gary Bann, senior applications engineer at SamSys Inc., predicted that the eventual use of RFID will not be just for product tracking, but also for document management, emergency evacuation control and access control to physical facilities. But use of RFID in document management will require super-powerful readers, capable of peering through as much as 110 inches of paper, according to Bann.

Moreover, for some applications, RFID readers might need to be embedded in cement, Bann said.

Alternatives to RFID include bar codes, GPS and cellular, according to Ravi Rajapakse, chief technology officer for Savi Technologies Inc.

Due to its relatively small range of wireless coverage, RFID isnt ideally suited right now for use with very large objects, Rajapakse said. When used to scan a lot of very small objects, problems with interference can crop up.

Speakers also cited technical barriers in areas ranging from metallic reflection to incompatibilities between RFID implementations across different frequencies.

Click here to read why Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman says RFID privacy fears, though overblown, still merit attention.

Systems integration giant Accenture views RFID as a technology that can provide "data acquisition for a purpose" and give "intelligence to everyday objects, "said Joe Tobolski, an associate partner at Accenture.

Next page: Too much hype.

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Still, RFID has been surrounded by too much hype, according to Tobolski. Each time users start to fall into "the valley of disillusionment, we see a new wave of hype," he told the FCC commissioners.

Tobolski also recited a long list of RFID implementation challenges, including costs, standardization, privacy, performance and reliability, and a need for greater collaboration.

"Costs are not yet what we want, [although] they will come down over time," Tobolski said. He pointed to one retail customer, with 510 miles of CD shelves, that was looking into installing RFID-enabled smart shelves. The customer abandoned that idea when told the price tag would be $250 million.

Systems integration will be expensive, too, Tobolski acknowledged, in that most current systems "are not geared to handling RFID data."

Accenture is working with a group of pharmaceutical firms that are now collaborating around RFID, he said.

On the privacy side, though, some RFID opponents still perceive the technology as "the beginning of the enslavement of humanity," he said.

Is RFID key to supply chain security? Read what a panel has to say.

Also underscoring privacy issues was Greg Pottie of Sensory Networks, a manufacturer of sensors used in applications such as seismic monitoring and transportation of contaminated goods. RFID is now "climbing the stack" to become a sensor, he said.

Pottie mentioned some possible workarounds to privacy concerns. "One of the solutions to the privacy dilemma is that [consumers] can be bribed," he quipped, in reference to consumer loyalty programs. "But you cant just take and take [customer information]."

As RFID takes greater hold, issues will include "who will be in charge of the data" and whether those who are responsible can be trusted, he said. These will be "sensible issues for regulation."

Check out eWEEK.coms Supply Chain Management & Logistics Center for the latest news and analysis of enterprise supply chains.

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