In the information age, technical innovation is expected. We're frequently bombarded with the newest, latest, greatest technological innovations known to humankind only to be disappointed in what turns out to be merely the flash in the pan of marketing hype.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), on the other hand, seems to have matured beyond the hype into the realm of practical products and useful services. To be sure, RFID has seen its share of hyperbole and hype—refrigerators that order milk for you and Tupperware that tells you the sauerkraut is no longer edible come to mind. But putting these spectacular and peculiar applications aside for the Hammacher Schlemmer crowd, there is a real, growing market for the services and products RFID systems can offer.
As the need for RFID products increases, the opportunities for developers to write code that takes advantage of the unique qualities of this technology will be plentiful. In preparation for the inevitable increased need for qualified programmers and designers, let's take a look at what RFID is and what products are currently in use.
Get a technical description of what happens
A basic RFID system consists of three components:
- An antenna
- A transceiver, which includes a decoder
- A transponder, in the form of an RF tag, electronically programmed with unique identifying information
When the antenna is packaged with the transceiver and decoder it is called a reader or interrogator. The RFID tags come in a variety of sizes and shapes, ranging from millimeters to credit-card size.
RFID tags can be passive or active. An active tag is powered by an internal battery, while the passive tag gets its power from the reader that is attempting to access it. The key advantage of RFID products is the non-contact, non-line-of-sight aspect of the technology. The only limitation is the range of the emissions, which is determined by the power supplied to the system and the operating frequency of the tag.
Current RFID uses
RFID technology is currently being used in several industries and products, including:
- Electronic article surveillance (EAS)
- Shipping container and railcar tracking
- Animal tracking
- Vehicle access and control
- Personnel access
- Production control
- Ski passes
- Sports timing
- Document authentication
- Dairy tagging
- Fuel and chemical dispensing
- Monitoring of transport environment
- Electronic product codes (EPC) supply chain deployment
- Wireless commerce
- Event ticketing
State of the industry
For an indication of the potential size of the RFID industry, you need to look no further than IBM Corp., Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart. These companies have announced their intentions to implement the technology aggressively as an integral part of their businesses.
Concentrating on applications within the supply chain, IBM has put considerable resources toward establishing RFID system standards of use. As part of the company's overall plan for wireless technologies, IBM envisions RFID technologies helping with the logistical requirements of the supply chain by replacing the barcode system currently in place.
To quote the IBM Web site: "IBM believes that the most significant supply-chain benefits resulting from the utilization of RFID technologies will only be enabled [and] realized by shared implementations across organizational boundaries. We are rapidly moving from an enabling technology—RFID—to enabling a vision of an intelligent supply chain, focused on operational efficiency and responsive to the needs of customers and trading partners."
In late 2003, Wal-Mart, the 600-pound gorilla of retail, delivered a mandate to its 100 largest suppliers: All cartons and pallets shipped to Wal-Mart stores must be equipped with wireless RFID sensors by Jan. 1, 2005. According to John Pulling, vice president and COO of Provia Software, a private warehouse management system vendor, companies will spend anywhere between $50,000 and $350,000 just to take care of the initial RFID requirements mandated by Wal-Mart.
Suppliers impacted by the Wal-Mart mandate will have to develop infrastructure and applications for tracking shipments that go beyond the current barcode technology. After these 100 suppliers take steps to comply with RFID requirements, it is very unlikely that other suppliers will be spared from additional mandates from the retailing giant. Of course, Wal-Mart's adoption of RFID technology will force other retailers to implement their own similar programs.
As the official soft drink of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Coca-Cola provided free refreshment to athletes using Coke bottle-shaped key ring tags and Coca-Cola vending machines equipped with RFID readers. The same basic principle can be applied to every can of Coca-Cola.
Tracking a can from manufacture, through shipping and distribution, to the vending machine, Coke will achieve an unprecedented level of inventory management and control. Vendors will be able to point a reader at a vending machine and tell immediately what stock needs to be replenished without having to open the machine and take a manual count.
All of this ubiquitous tracking ability does raise privacy issues for many. By their nature, RFID tags can be read by anyone at any time without your knowledge or, more importantly, your permission. Theoretically, the powers that be could scan the contents of your briefcase and note your liberal reading tendencies or proclivity to carry concealed weapons.
While the privacy concerns are very real, they are limited by the nature of the RFID technology. Most personally carried RFID tags (smart cards, key chains, etc.) require close proximity to the appropriate reader before they will transmit the data they carry.
However, as the technology becomes more prevalent, the potential for the unscrupulous to exploit it will have to be monitored and addressed. Not to be undone by such fears, the industry is very sensitive to the potential for misuse and is taking steps to increase data security with standards and operating specifications.
You can get some additional background information from these Web sites:
Physical Markup Language
The Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies
For application developers, the opportunity inherent in RFID technology lies in the middleware that processes the data coming from the tags and reader devices. The information must be collated, analyzed, and reported to the decision makers in a form that is understandable and actionable. The capability to collect data and apply it to practical business uses will require the development of sophisticated applications.
Your chance to share
I've laid out the basic ideas behind RFID technology, but it merely scratches the surface of what could be a big market for application designers and developers.
We want to know if there are any Builder.com members creating applications for RFID technologies now, or if they plan to be developing for it in the future. This market is growing—are you part of it? Do you want to be?
Start or join the article discussion below and share with the Builder community your experiences with RFID technology.
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.