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Users Signal RFID Intentions

LAS VEGAS -- Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), more often associated with retailers and manufacturers, is now attracting attention from a broader range of users. IT managers here for this week's Interop show say they are looking to the technology to track everything from school books and teaching staff to warship parts.

"Some of our logistical staff are looking at it for tracking high-value items such as very expensive replacement parts," explains Commander Greg Reynolds, information systems director at the Royal New Zealand Navy. This, he notes, could range from radar equipment to aircraft parts.

Work being done by other countries may help push this project forward. "We have some common hardware parts with the Australian and the Americans, so that could be a driver for it," he says. "As the technology becomes more affordable and more pervasive, it could be extended to lower-value items such as foodstuffs."

Reynolds, however, acknowledges that data transfer is a major hurdle for the Royal New Zealand Navy, whose patrol area extends from the edge of Australian waters to Antarctica. Additionally, he added, the military has deployments in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Timor. "The biggest challenge would be the passing back of information from remote locations."

It's not just the military that is turning to RFID. Shlomi Harif, director of network systems and support at the Austin Independent School District told Byte and Switch that he is looking at RFID to log the number of hours worked by the organization's 22,000 classroom mentors. "We can put one sensor at the entrances all our mentors use," he says, adding that the RFID chip could be contained within the mentors' ID badges.

Harif is also eyeing the technology to potentially speed up the delivery of schoolbooks to students. Deploying RFID sensors in the district's warehouse, according to Harif, could significantly improve the organization's supply chain. "We receive hundreds of thousands, if not a million, textbooks a year, so we could automate our receiving process and literally save days."

A number of users have highlighted a potential storage explosion caused by RFID data, but Harif feels that his district, with a 36-Tbyte IBM SAN and a 10 Gbit/s-Ethernet network, will not have any problems. (See RFID Rocks Back-End Storage, HP & BEA Tag-Team on RFID, and Tagging the Future.)

Some big-name firms, such as Wal-Mart, have already strong-armed their top suppliers into deploying RFID. Other organizations, such as the U.S Department of Defense, are also increasing the pressure on their IT partners to deploy RFID.

RFID works by using tags on a specific product or package, which emit radio signals. "Reader" devices then pick up these signals, enabling the products to be tracked. Unlike barcode technology, RFID does not require direct contact, or what is known as "line-of-sight" scanning.

But other users attending Interop cited a slew of other challenges in the path of their RFID deployments, such as costs, as well as teething problems with RFID kit. Russ Leaton, IT director at Burd & Fletcher, a carton manufacturer that works with Wal-Mart suppliers, is planning his own RFID deployment. "It's getting pushed in our direction, we're being forced to review it, but the pay-off is very small," he says. "Right off the bat, we will spend about half a million dollars on the project."

John Giacchi, IT director at Fashion Accessories First, a Greenville, R.I.-based manufacturer, told Byte and Switch that he is wrestling with a number of RFID issues. "We're still waiting to jump into the pool," he says, highlighting the fact that metal objects and liquids often interfere with RFID readers' ability to work. "Put [the tag] in the middle of a pallet of liquid soap and you're going to have trouble."

Chetan Patwardhan, partner at Stratogent, a San Mateo, Calif.-based IT services firm, also highlighted the problem of firms looking to share their RFID data with other supply chain partners. "People tend to use different applications, and they tend to use different databases. It could be Oracle, it could be Microsoft SQL Server, it could be IBM DB2," he says. "If the databases are not relational databases, then that could be even more challenging."

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch



Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • BEA Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BEAS)
  • HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ)
  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)
  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)
  • Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)

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