Losing track

It’s gone from marginal technology to hot topic in just a few years but over-hyping and teething problems have dogged RFID implementations. ACN looks at the stuttering uptake of the wireless tagging technology in the region.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  October 23, 2005

|~|Kumar,-Pradeep-----EMIRATES.jpg|~|“This is only the start for RFID — there are almost limitless applications within Emirates.” – Pradeep Kumar, vice president for cargo revenue optimisation at Emirates Cargo.|~|Radio frequency identification (RFID) is more than 60 years old, originating on Second World War planes. Now some of the biggest organisations in the world, including Wal Mart, Tesco and the United States Department of Defence (DoD), have adopted it, and are forcing their suppliers to do the same. The potential for RFID is huge. Possible applications include high-accuracy, high-speed, no line-of-sight scanning of large numbers of tagged items, real-time asset tracking of personnel and high-value items, and counterfeit prevention in areas such as aviation parts and pharmaceuticals. RFID vendors universally say these uses are only the start, and the true potential of the technology won’t become apparent until it’s in widespread use. But a lot of uncertainty still surrounds this resurgent technology, especially in the Middle East, where the influence of the big retailers is diminished. Some organisations such as Saudi Post and DHL have made announcements about RFID projects but have declined requests for interviews. There can be many reasons behind this reluctance to talk but with RFID, two seem most likely. First, because RFID represents such a key business advantage, companies don’t want to give their competitors advance warning they are bringing in the technology. Second, and more hinted at than explicitly stated, RFID may not be the wonder-system certain vendors have made it out to be, and would-be early adopters may have run into problems during initial trials and pilots. Tariq Hasan, sales support manager for Symbol Technologies ME, a major RFID reader and tag producer, has clear ideas about why companies have issues: “A lot of people are pushing RFID in applications the technology is not suitable for. One example is security: a vendor might demonstrate a tiny tag, and say it can be placed on jewellery as an anti-theft measure. But in reality if it’s put on a chain and the chain covers the tag it becomes useless, because the tag can’t work through metal. The same is true of a laptop – if a thief wants to steal a tagged laptop, all he has to do is wrap it in aluminium foil and walk out of the building.” Another major issue is the cost of the technology; which represents a major stumbling block at the moment. The expense is divided between three main areas: the cost of readers and antennae, upgrades to existing infrastructure and the ongoing cost of tags. The first of these seems straightforward to calculate; an end user simply works out the area that needs to be covered, and then deploy readers and antennae as necessary. However, because RFID in its current form is still an emerging technology, there are still discrepancies between stated specifications and real-world situations. To be fair, this is in large part due to the nature of radio devices, but while other wireless technologies have evolved to the point where such issues are predictable, RFID is not there yet. Emirates SkyCargo staff found that when they physically installed readers during the company’s recent tests, they had a number of issues with the equipment, according to Akshay Shrivastava, information services manager for Emirates. “Initially we had problems with read ranges, with ‘black holes’ where we had no signal at all. For certain applications, such as asset tracking with airport trolleys or cargo pallets, this would be a real issue. To fill the holes, the only solution is to install new readers or antennae, obviously adding cost to the project,” he says. Adding extra equipment to plug holes in this type of situation is obviously going to increase costs, and if an implementation plan calls for a large area to be covered by RFID readers the increase could be steep. Similar issues surround the upgrading of an existing infrastructure to cope with RFID, although here some of the issues are more long-term, and potentially more serious. One of the key reasons behind RFID’s current resurgence is the dramatic increase in networked systems, both within offices and over wide area networks. This allows a simple serial number stored on a tag to be checked against a database sitting anywhere in the world, allowing companies to associate as much information as desired with a single tag. However, the flip-side of this is the volume of information which has to travel over the network. When some end users are looking at reading hundreds of tags in a second, this could potentially become a major issue, especially when combined with the background network chatter generated by readers in the form of control codes and status signals. One vendor which, unsurprisingly, has taken an interest in this is Cisco Systems, which has its own idea of how an RFID-optimised network should look. Samer Alkharrat, Gulf region general manager for Cisco, says, “Our vision is of a network with more intelligence at the edge; if the network understands the information passing across it, then it has the capability to be much more efficient. For example, if an RFID reader produces control codes or status codes, most of these could be dealt with by a server at the edge of the network, instead of using bandwidth to send the information to a central system. And if there are especially vital pieces of information, then these can be prioritised.” Alkharrat adds that many networked systems could benefit from this approach, although RFID is perhaps one of the few which requires an intelligent approach to its network integration. The reason for this is clear when you consider that a reader will read the same tag hundreds of times a second: without processing, this information would quickly clog a network. This is where RFID middleware comes in. This can reside in readers or edge servers, and take care of much of the data generated by the readers. Configuring middleware to filter tag information effectively is a key part of any RFID implementation; over time both the cost and the quality of middleware systems will improve, but at the moment this still seems to be an area which is in flux. The final major expense in any RFID implementation is the cost of the tags themselves. At the moment, this is the main barrier to widespread adoption of the technology: the cost of a simple passive tag is currently around US$0.20. Most analysts say the cost needs to fall to US$0.05 before companies can afford to deploy the technology widely, although as suppliers to the major retailers and the DoD bring in their systems, this should start to happen. And when RFID becomes a mainstream technology, that’s when we will start to see the really interesting applications, says Stefan Schwiers, chief technology officer for Tagstone, a Dubai-based RFID consultancy. His company is currently demonstrating — along with more traditional supply-chain and asset-tracking applications — a sophisticated access-control system incorporating RFID and biometrics, aimed at securing weaponry for armed forces and police. “We haven’t even begun to see what RFID can do, and we won’t until it’s been taken up by a lot more organisations,” he says. “We’re right at the start of the technology at the moment – it’s still maturing and improving, and in a few years it will be widespread. Where will it go after that? I can’t say, but it will be fascinating to watch.” Currently most of the interest in the technology is centred around its use in supply-chain-management applications, as championed by the retailers. The next step here is to move from carton-level and pallet-level tagging to item-level applications. This would potentially allow retailers to monitor the level of stock on their shelves as well as in their warehouses, trigger alerts when high-value items are moved from a shelf, and even bill customers automatically as they leave the store, by scanning the items in a trolley wirelessly. At the moment, though, this seems to be a pipe dream. The cost of such a system alone would be enough to make even a flourishing retailer think twice, and with the equipment currently available implementing it would almost certainly be an impossible task. And as many low-value items might actually be worth less than the tags put on them, even with projected price falls, the implications for profit margins could be severe. One area which looks somewhat rosier is that of asset tracking. To work efficiently, many solutions use active tags, which have greater ranges and are usually less susceptible to interference. As the price of these is set to fall as adoption rates increase, more and more items will become candidates for tagging. This is one of the areas which Emirates has been examining in its trial, along with secure tracking of high-value shipments and other applications. Pradeep Kumar, vice president for cargo revenue optimisation at Emirates, explains the value of RFID to the company: “We can reduce the amount of cargo which goes missing, we can track our trolleys and other equipment, and we can speed up our operations and make them more efficient. This is all in the cargo area, but as far as we’re concerned this is only the start for RFID — there are almost limitless applications within Emirates.” Emirates has not yet taken its RFID project to pilot. Instead of rushing in, it has spent some time exploring the technology, and distinguishing the hype from the reality, according to Shrivastava. He says this is one of the main issues regarding RFID at the moment, and is a key reason why take up has been slow. Symbol’s Hasan draws a useful analogy on this point: “For me, RFID is now where wireless networking was four years ago. There’s a lot of hype, there are a lot of unrealistic promises, but the possibilities are starting to emerge. Now wireless networks are commonplace – people understand the technology, and it’s developing steadily; we will start to see the same thing with RFID.” Shrivastava says Emirates is now at the point where it can talk knowledgeably about the subject without having to rely on vendors and consultants, and this gives it an enormous advantage when it comes to working out a long-term RFID strategy. It is able to do this because of its size and the scope of its plans for the technology. For many companies, though, such an approach is not possible, and they will have to work with specialist RFID firms. From Emirates, the message to companies looking at RFID, the message is simple. “Be careful; there are a lot of people pushing over hyped, unrealistic products in the marketplace at the moment, and it’s easy to be misled,” says Shrivastava. “One problem is there are not enough Middle East-based companies specialising in the technology, although this is starting to change. But with many companies it is easy to get carried away by a slick presentation, and find that their solutions do not hold water in the real world.” There is also a smaller risk of becoming a victim of more than hype. But despite this current immaturity, it is in everyone’s interests that RFID solutions are not mis-sold in order to make a quick profit, according to Schwiers: “When we sell a system to a company, we don’t just want to sell the system, we want to carry on providing tags to the company for years to come. For us, RFID is a long-term proposition which will keep growing and evolving. Yes, there are issues at the moment, but they will be resolved, and the real value of the technology will be revealed.” Shrivastava agrees, saying, “It is not a question of if RFID comes in, but when. In a few years it will be an integral part of our infrastructure. This technology is going to change areas of our business fundamentally and it is here to stay.”||**||

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