Click here for Part I covering what is RFID?
The Eras of RFID
The progress of RFID adoption divides naturally into eras: the Proprietary era, the Compliance era, the RFID-Enabled Enterprise era , the RFID-Enabled Industries era, and the Internet of Things era. In Figure 5, you can see when some of the capabilities of RFID technology became, or will become, available.
In the beginning, during the Proprietary era, businesses and governmental entities created systems designed to track one particular type of item, and this tracking information typically remained within the same business or governmental entity. In the Compliance era (the present era), businesses implement RFID to meet mandates for interoperability with important customers or regulatory agencies but often don't use the RFID data themselves.
The future will bring the era of the RFID-Enabled Enterprise, where organizations will use RFID information to improve their own processes. The era of RFID-Enabled Industries will see RFID information shared among partners over robust and secure networks according to well-established standards. The final RFID era that is currently foreseeable is the era of the Internet of Things.
By this time, the ubiquity of RFID technology and other enabling technologies, combined with high standards and customer demand for unique products based on this infrastructure, will lead to a revolutionary change in the way we perceive the relationship between information and physical objects and locations. More and more, we will expect most objects in our daily lives to exist both in a particular place, with particular properties, and in the information spaces we inhabit. For instance, a park bench has a particular shape, color, and location, but with a tag, it can also have a list of notes left by people who have stopped there to rest. The list is just as real as the color of the paint, and just as much an attribute of the bench. This is now a green metal bench on the north end of Shaker Park with “a great view of the sunrise,” according to “pigeon-guy.”
Companies, regions, and even individuals will move through these eras at different paces. Even now, some users of RFID are touching on the RFID-Enabled Industries era as emerging standards make this possible, while others are still in the Proprietary era. In many other areas, RFID has not been adopted at all.
The Proprietary Era
For almost 60 years now (triggered by the development of transistors in 1947), businesses and governmental entities have used RFID to track items and provide access control to facilities. The smaller size and greater durability of transistors made it possible to attach transmitters to valuable items, and over time developments such as improved batteries, integrated circuits, and microchips reduced the cost of the transmitters (tags), allowing tracking of less valuable items.
Some of the applications in this era included the tags used to track rail cars and the chassis tags that have been used since the 1980s to track automobiles through an assembly line. In the 1970s and 1980s, RFID was used for tracking dairy cattle. In the 1990s, the beef industry began tracking cattle using $5.00 ear tags. Expensive, proprietary RFID tags, which were usually recycled, were a major characteristic of this era. The reuse spread the cost out, such that a single use might cost only a few cents. Some of the systems developed during this era were technically advanced and tightly integrated into business processes, but they were characterized by both poor support for sharing information between trading partners (incompatible IDs, for instance) and costly reader and tag components.
The Compliance Era
The steep drop in semiconductor prices and widespread adoption of broadband networking at the end of the 20th century triggered an era we call the Compliance era. In this era, the U.S. DoD and large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Tesco began asking their suppliers to tag pallets (and sometimes individual items) with RFID tags. Their mandates required that the tags conform to emerging standards. The anticipated volume of tags that will be purchased to meet these mandates has pushed these same standards much closer to universal adoption, which has greatly reduced the cost of components.
Because this tagging effort has arisen from efforts to comply with a mandate rather than a perceived business opportunity for suppliers, many suppliers have implemented so-called tag and ship applications , which apply RFID tags to pallets or cartons as they leave the supplier's control and ship to a retailer or government customer. The supplier then uses the information on the tag to fill out an advanced shipment notification (ASN), notifying the recipient to expect goods tagged with particular identifiers. The supplier does not tag the goods early enough in its own cycle to take advantage of tracking to improve its processes.
In short, some of these suppliers currently may see RFID as an added expense and burden. They are driven almost entirely by cost efficiency in complying with the mandates, and we do not see applications that integrate RFID into internal business processes or extensive sharing of RFID information between partners in this era. Also, the new, less expensive tag technology is still prone to manufacturing defects, and, due in part to early implementation of the tag standards, often Compliance-era tags do not perform as well in practice as the tags in the Proprietary-era systems. Thus, while adoption of RFID is on the rise, there has actually been a slight slump in its capabilities (in the sense of how the technology is used, if not the purposes to which it is applied). Fortunately, new, more efficient standards and rapid improvement in both tag quality and throughput are quickly closing the gap.
The RFID-Enabled Enterprise Era
As standards stabilize and component costs fall, many organizations will begin to implement RFID tracking within their internal processes. This will allow them to measure the pulse of their distribution systems for materials, assets, and products and to keep real-time inventories of items, such as the location and age of perishable goods. During this era, declining costs will inspire a steady transition from tracking shipping units to tracking individual items. Other types of sensors will join RFID to monitor information such as the highest temperature to which an item has been exposed or whether gases produced by spoilage are present. Labor-intensive bar code inventories will, in many cases, be replaced with scan-by inventories, allowing someone simply to walk down the aisle with a handheld reader. Similarly, portal readers at the door will record the entry and exit of every item in a shop or warehouse.
In response to demand, more manufacturers will begin tagging items with standards-compliant tags at the point of origin, taking over from the suppliers and distributors who performed this role in the Compliance era. Business integration products and inventory tools will begin to fully support individual item tracking.
However, even with widespread internal adoption and tagging at the origin of the supply chain, it will take time for businesses to develop the agreements and security to allow organizations to share RFID information with one another (so-called business-to-business, or B2B, communication). While businesses will continue to share whatever B2B information they have shared in the past, the new RFID information will be used largely within the enterprise.
The RFID-Enabled Industries Era
In this era, RFID standards, RFID information networks, business agreements, and comprehensive security and privacy policies will solidify to the point where entire industries and supply chains can share appropriate information reliably, trusting that only authorized users can see any sensitive information. This will probably include a redefinition of what constitutes sensitive information, as unexpected revelations are likely to arise from the study of detailed instance data (where only aggregates and estimates were available before).
Safety overstock inventories will drop, along with fulfillment times and costs, due to theft and error. Simply knowing “what was where when” provides a powerful tool for applications that we have only begun to realize. Expect to see new products, partnerships, and even whole cottage industries develop by harnessing the advantages of this new flow of information.
For many years, pundits have predicted that businesses will begin to share information much more freely, but it hasn't yet happened on the scale they predicted. Why might RFID information be different? The key is that RFID information is very concrete. It can be difficult for partners to agree on what an item description should contain, but RFID information can be as simple as a universally standardized ID code, a timestamp, and a universally standardized location code. (For more information on ID and location codes, see Chapter 4.)
While we will realize all of these advantages, significant challenges will also arise as managing all of this information, including the sensors and software that produce it, becomes more difficult. Ad hoc or dated architectures will creak and even fail under the load.
The Internet of Things Era
This final era will be triggered by widespread adoption of RFID technology and the associated demand for easier management of distributed sensor networks, as well as by a reduction in the cost of smart devices and tags. Lower costs and greater demand for information will commercialize existing technologies already in use so that military and manufacturing applications can create self-organizing networks of cheap, expendable components with extremely low incremental maintenance and management costs. This technology will finally make it possible to adopt RFID technology on retail floors, in farm fields, and in homes. It will expand the group of businesses adopting the technology to include even the smallest entrepreneurs. RFID tags will cease to simply be labels applied to items and will more often be added as integral parts at the time of manufacture or as part of the packaging. At this stage of development, the idea that an item has a digital identity will become as basic as the idea that an item has a color or weight or size.
In this era, physical objects will be tied to the Internet through their digital identities. Just as we expect to be able to do a quick Internet search to find the answer to an obscure trivia question, we will expect to be able to wave a soda bottle past a cell phone and find out where and at what specific time the soda was manufactured and, if we like, the last known location of every other bottle of that soft drink manufactured within the same hour at a particular location. Invisible digital graffiti associated with identities attached to physical objects will surround us in the form of messages posted to the Internet.
But this could go far beyond messages like “Joey was here,” for example, a how-to video for using a piece of equipment could be associated on the Internet with the equipment's tagged ID. By this era, we probably won't think about RFID technology any more than we think about electrical technology today. We will simply expect it to work.
Next: Application Types
About the Authors
Bill Glover makes his living explaining simple concepts to complex people who tend to work for large companies. Bill believes that anything you do three times should be scripted, and that if a piece of code is 100 lines long it can probably be done better in 10. Bill is a Pisces who enjoys long walks in the hills, full personal state vector uploads and chatting about completely harmless things over strong, public key encryption. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Himanshu Bhatt heads Sun Microsystem's US RFID & Sensor Solutions Practice. His responsibilities include developing go-to-market strategies and execution plans, developing partnerships with select ISVs, IHVs, and Systems Integrators, people management and all aspects of RFID related sales and delivery for the US market. As the head of the US RFID efforts for Sun, Himanshu developed strong working relationship with product engineering, marketing and industry partners. Prior to leading the charge for the RFID practice, Himanshu has managed the technical sales and consulting practices for Java and related Sun Software products. Himanshu started his career as an enterprise architect and has published papers and spoken at industry conferences on various areas of J2EE and enterprise software architecture.