RFID won't deliver, says wireless expert

If you haven't yet developed a radio frequency identification (RFID) technology strategy, don't rush, is the message from one integrator that works on wireless systems.


If you haven't yet developed a radio frequency identification (RFID) technology strategy, don't rush, is the message from one integrator that works on wireless systems.

Ronan Clinton, managing director at Heavey RF in Dublin, said RFID was likely to fail to deliver on all its objectives, cost a lot money and wind up being an expensive, unnecessary investment.

"The problems with RFID are global," said Clinton. "A deployment in smaller Irish companies is less justifiable than in big US companies, but the cost and technical boundaries remain the same. I maintain that it will not be possible to roll out RFID in the supply chain globally."

Clinton said he was a fan of RFID technology, having been involved in a number of successful implementations. But, Clinton said, RFID "simply cannot do what people expect it to do from the hype that has been generated over the last decade. It is not a magic wand that will tell you where all your products are in real time. It is not as reliable as bar coding, and can never be as cost-effective."

He said that although RFID has been around in various forms for decades, it still wasn't as reliable as its rival, the bar code. Some reports have indicated that even the next-generation, industry standard Ultra High Frequency Gen 2 RFID tags are read accurately only 60% of the time at the case level. And RFID is never going to be as cheap to use as bar codes. For instance, Clinton asserted, there would never be an RFID tag costing 3p because so many types of tags with different specifications are needed. Wal-Mart, for example, demands that suppliers use a UHF tag, while pharmaceutical makers want high-frequency (HF) ones. This means no one tag will become the de facto industry standard and permit the bulk mass production that would lead to lower prices, he said.

An RFID investment can also be precarious, Clinton said. What happens, he asked, if a US company required by Wal-mart to use a UHF tag also receives a mandate from another company to have an HF tag? "Everything has to be reinvented," he said. On the other hand, bar code scanners are much more flexible in reading different sets of code configurations and wouldn't require a major overhaul.

But despite his concerns, Clinton said that for certain types of deployments, RFID can be useful. These include closed-loop installations, which are done internally at a company for things such as assembly line operations. Open-loop installations, by contrast, involve using RFID to tag items such as cases that will be shipped to partners.

Even in closed-loop deployments, careful cost analysis is important, Clinton said. Should RFID use be mandated by a government or a major partner such as Wal-Mart, companies should actually wait as long as possible before rolling out the technology and learn the ins and outs first, said Clinton.

"Given that bar coding still hasn't been fully deployed after 40 years in the supply chain, I find it hard to accept that this much more expensive, infinitely more complicated and not-yet mature technology is going to be any different," Clinton said of RFID.

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