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Think you know RFID?

top five most common myths

(PresseBox) (Meerbusch, ) RFID has been touted as the 'next big thing' for years. But what does that actually mean? Will we ever reach widespread item level tagging in Europe?

Having spent too long not quite living up to its own hype, it's time to take a new look at the technology - how it's being used, what's going to happen in 2009, and which common preconceptions about RFID are groundless.

First, a look at the positives: in the right circumstances, RFID is a very useful technology. Although most people associate it with the retail and logistics industry, it is becoming increasingly popular in the leisure business - for example, wristbands acting as tickets for events, or to let people on and off the ski slopes.

In the last couple of years, RFID has been used in passports in an increasing number of countries across the world - and the first British passports in 2007. Add to that payment cards, public transport tickets and patient identification, and the scope for the technology becomes clear.

Currently, the CASAGRAS initiative is getting people talking about RFID across Europe. An odd name for a sensible idea, the European Commission launched the CASAGRAS project in October 2008. It aims to promote international collaboration on RFID, to examine how stakeholders can work together to meet the global challenges and maximise the opportunities presented by the technology.

CASAGRAS is in its early stages but it should prove to be a good way to get people talking at an international level. Given the nature of international supply chains, RFID needs to operate at a global level in order to be successful.

Privacy remains a contentious issue in the RFID world. Protest bodies like CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) in the US and FoeBuD in Germany are quick to point out the weaknesses in passive and active tags - and how they can be misused for tracking people without their knowledge, for example.

Six months ago the EU carried out a public consultation into RFID and privacy, with a view to implementing legislative guidelines around it. While EU legislation would certainly help to put people's minds at rest, we need an international remit, not simply a European one, to reflect the global nature of the technology.

Historically, the US has led the way with RFID development. At Zebra, we are able to monitor progress on both sides of the Atlantic. In terms of sales, America still outstrips Europe by some distance. The one factor that straddles all markets at the moment is the economy - whatever Auto ID technology is being used - customers are demanding return on investment in record times in order to justify the spend to their finance teams. Despite being seen as an expensive technology, this could potentially be a good thing for RFID.

So how to differentiate between the facts and the hype? Below are some of the stories around RFID that we hear most frequently from customers and prospects. All of them require clarification to help those interested in the technology to make the most informed buying decisions.

RFID - don't believe the hype

1. Look forward to 2009: the year RFID really takes off...

How many times before have we heard that one? Let's get this straight - despite what some in the industry say, RFID technology is never going to suddenly explode. Iterations of RFID technology have been around since 1946 when a Soviet Spy invented a clever listening device. It's a technology that develops slowly. If you're expecting a sudden take off, you'll be waiting for some time yet.

That said, the number of RFID applications available increase every year. For example, the recent development of mobile RFID printers has enabled applications where stock or assets can be labelled 'in the field'. Mobile technology is developing quickly, and that will continue to drive RFID innovation on the move.

2. It's all about the mandates

It has long been assumed that when big retailers mandate the use of RFID for suppliers, the technology becomes more widespread. In reality, mandates are important, but there are a number of drivers for take-up of the technology.

For example, the Wal-Mart mandate is still frequently cited as the reason why RFID is so much more advanced in the US. Today, 500 suppliers are still mandated, but the majority of them feel that the retailer is no longer pushing it - the pressure isn't on like it once was.

One mandate that is being pushed is Sam's Club, a wholesale retailer owned by Wal-Mart. Also, Best Buy Stores has mandated 100 suppliers.

In Europe, there have also been important mandates, such as that from the leading German retail giant Metro. In 2007 the business mandated 650 suppliers to use RFID.

However, it's important to remember that there are now a number of different drivers for RFID take-up, which don't just involve the retail and healthcare markets. For example, increased concerns about security of high-value IT equipment has meant that UHF tags are increasingly used for asset tracking in the supply chain.

Also, tighter restrictions around entry at events, and security concerns for employees have increased usage of UHF tags for access control and monitoring employees arriving and leaving work for security reasons.

3. They'll be tagging your favourite pet next...or even us?

In fact, tagging animals with RFID is already happening - it's a requirement of the Pets Passport Scheme and is used to provide a 'cradle to table' life history for livestock. Cattle have been tagged in this way for many years in fact.

As for humans, this is perhaps further away in most cases. We're certainly not all suddenly going to implanted with RFID chips and followed around the supermarket by CCTV. On the other hand, RFID wristbands are being used in healthcare to identify patients and keep track of their treatment. Putting a chip on a wristband is slightly more sensible than subcutaneous implants.

4. The next big thing: in ten years, RFID will have replaced the barcode

There are plenty of alternatives to RFID - sometimes users just don't understand what's available. In reality, RFID is only suitable in a small number of cases - more often than not there's another Auto-ID solution that works. In Europe, sales of 2D barcodes (containing twice as much information as the conventional one dimensional version) are growing ten times as quickly as any kind of RFID tags. They are particularly popular for labelling drugs in order to avoid counterfeiting.

Sometimes using something as simple as a mobile barcode printer instead of a fixed one in the warehouse can make significant time and money savings.

And finally, it comes down to cost. Although there are some pilots of item level tagging taking place in the US, conventional barcodes will always be a fraction of the cost of RFID and often do the job just as well. It'll take many, many years for that to change.

5. Interference in hospitals? blame it on the RFID tag

A study carried out by the University of Amsterdam in the summer of 2008 concluded that the use of RFID technology in hospitals could damage hospital equipment. It reported that the technology could cause electromagnetic interference that could shut down IV pumps and cripple defibrillators. It made for worrying reading for those hospitals investing in RFID technology.

However, the report was flawed. According to experts, the tests were carried out under unrealistic conditions. The RFID products were set at extremely high power wattages, and their frequencies weren't consistent with the majority of health care-related RFID applications.

It goes without saying that any prospect of RFID having a negative impact on medical devices has to be taken seriously. In response to concerns about RFID and equipment safety in hospitals, the Automatic Identification Taskforce was organised by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society in Chicago. The taskforce brought together customers, vendors and suppliers to discuss the risks of RFID, and concluded that the "risk was less than the reward".

The technology is extremely useful in hospitals, demonstrated by the number of applications available for tracking patients, blood prescriptions and equipment. It's safe, secure and saves hospital employees' time as well as resources.

Leaner times, more opportunities?

In conclusion, RFID certainly has its uses, as it always has done. The industry is simply more realistic about what it can achieve and how it should be used than it was a few years ago. The US is still ahead of Europe in terms of development, but it is important to remember that there are different drivers in each market.

In Europe, organisations like CASAGRAS and businesses like the Metro Group will ensure that RFID remains on the Auto-ID agenda and that it remains a hot topic in relevant circles.

RFID will only be genuinely effective when it's used across an industry, rather than by individual businesses. Standards will help, but to truly unleash the potential savings businesses have to work together on this.

What will be interesting to see is how the technology will develop over the next year. RFID is undoubtedly an expensive form of Auto-ID, but leaner times don't necessarily mean lower sales. The recession in the early 1990s was a boom time for the Auto-ID industry. The demands of greater ROI and lower budgets for testing and pilots won't necessarily mean RFID is put on the back burner until wealthier times - it could be just the boost it needs.