Where RFID could be

TORONTO – If tracking the life of a pair of shorts isn’t your idea of a cutting-edge application, then rest assured that RFID, or radio frequency identification, will get more exciting, panellists told this week’s RFID Supply Chain Solutions Conference.

RFID is at the same stage as Web pages were in the early ’90s, said Paul Heino, CEO of Sundex Information Systems, which specializes in remote data collection.

Companies blew the bank to develop a Web page that was essentially an online brochure, he said. In other words, they were using new technology to replicate what they already knew.

“Everybody’s saying now, ‘Hey, we can replace bar codes with RFID,’” he said, pointing out this is equivalent to developing an online brochure.

“We’re going to see things in the next two, three years that we can’t even think of now,” he said. “We don’t know where things are going – it’s up to our imagination.”

Shaun Ricci, CEO of N4 Systems Inc., discussed a hospital in California which is using RFID tags to prevent newborn babies from being kidnapped. “I’m quite open to going beyond supply chains,” he said.

Hospitals could also use RFID tags to keep track of Alzheimer patients or provide medical information about people who have a history of heart disease (in case they were in a position where they could not speak). In other words, it could serve as a high-tech version of a medic alert bracelet.

Another use is on the battlefield, said Bob Matson, CEO of RFID Engineering. An active RFID tag could fit inside a military dog tag, for example, which would be read by a secure system. That tag could contain information about the soldier’s medical history and religious preferences, or any other relevant information. This would allow soldiers to be tracked on the battlefield, which otherwise would be impossible, and provide information if they’re unable to do so themselves.

RFID allows you to track your assets, but it can also tell you what condition they’re in, said Peter Winer, CEO of Big Chief Partners, who works as an RFID advisor to investors, end users and IT vendors. RFID could be particularly useful for cold chain and telemetry applications.

RFID is already being used in cold chains to monitor the temperature of perishable food items – but it’s a largely untapped market. For example, a company could monitor the temperature of its products, track those products through the supply chain and verify when those products change hands, instead of having those three processes done separately by a temperature recorder, bar code scanner and a pile of paperwork.

Open source is another untapped market. Ricci heads up The RadioActive Foundation, which is a not-for-profit organization that aims to provide low-cost access to RFID software. The foundation is in the design phase of three open source projects: Neutrino is a set of components for exchanging electronic product code-related data between enterprises; Fusion is a middleware system that takes RFID input and adds business context; and Graviton is an RFID hardware simulator.

“Using open source is always a bit questionable, so why would we want to use that over a proprietary system?” said Ricci. The advantage is that users can build on top of an application without restrictions, he said. They can change, add and modify.

“I don’t think it’s going to be possible for all these middleware vendors to be self-sustaining over the next 10 years.”

Still, RFID isn’t always going to be the best solution. Matson said it’s important to filter out the non-productive uses of RFID and apply it where you’ll see results.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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