Fine Times For RFID

It’s a fine time to be an RFID vendor . A second round of Wal-Mart RFID mandates will kick in on January 1, 2006. It’s looking like this RFID thing might really take-off.

While manufacturers and suppliers worried about whether the expense of installing RFID systems would pay off, large purchasers demanded that they at least tag pallets and cases of goods.

Wal-Mart’s original mandate that its top 100 suppliers begin tagging shipments beginning January 1, 2005 jump-started the industry. Albertsons Stores and the U.S. Department of Defense soon joined in the demand.

Now, purchasers are upping the ante.

On January 1, 2006 more Wal-Mart suppliers must begin tagging goods going to Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, on November 14, a new ruling from the Department of Defense took effect. It requires tagging of all supplies except liquids heading for Iraq. The DoD also rolled out RFID infrastructure at two more depots.

Phil Lazo, vice president and general manager of the RFID infrastructure division of Symbol Technologies , said this expansion should help push RFID out of its early-adopter phase.

While Lazo wouldn’t discuss specifics of how much Symbol’s RFID business has grown since the mandates, he estimated that the DoD would spend around $40 million on passive RFID in 2007. He called the prospects for 2006 “exciting.”

“We’ll see more rollouts across a number of verticals,” Lazo said. “We’ll see new readers come out that will be more miniaturized: smaller, faster, cheaper and more embedded.” RFID technology will be embedded into a wide range of equipment used in business, from forklifts and conveyors to copying machines, he said.

Another trend Lazo sees is writing applications directly onto smart readers. “We see business logic and business rules being applied directly onto the reader appliance, so you can make quicker decisions right on the edge.”

According to Lazo, RFID is entering its next phase, a predictable one for any new technology: Costs come down, the technology gets smaller, and managing the network becomes easier.

Several vendors made RFID announcements this week:

  • Vue Technology released TrueVUE RFID Platform, a hardware/software combination designed for tagging and tracking individual items, as well as cases and pallets, through the supply chain.

  • IBM added Intermec to its roster of hardware vendors embedding its RFID “intelligent reader” middleware.

  • Zebra Technologies landed a contract to provide ) professional services and engineering support, as well as RFID smart label printer/encoders, software and media, to the Department of the Navy.

  • Sun Microsystems released RFID Industry Solution for Drug Authentication, a package for tracking the shipment and pedigree of pharmaceuticals.

While there may be RFID vendors galore, there remains a serious lack of qualified professionals to help companies transition from barcodes to tags. To fill the talent gap, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a trade organization for IT professionals, has launched a professional certification program.

The CompTIA RFID+ certification is a vendor-neutral professional certification for pros with between six and twenty-four months of experience. It covers a wide range of topics related to the installation, configuration and maintenance of RFID hardware and device software, including interrogation zone basics, testing and troubleshooting, standards and regulations, tag knowledge, design selection, installation, site analysis, RF physics, and RFID peripherals. A beta version of the exam became available on October 31.

“It’s a real opportunity to prove their skills, and, because of the organizations involvd in the effort, it will be the industry standard for ‘skilling’ RFID professionals,” said Dave Sommers, CompTIA vice president of electronic commerce. He said that the certification is designed for technologists, those with skillsets more advanced than those of technicians but below those of systems architects.

CompTIA’s new program is a response to a recent survey that found that 80 percent of respondents didn’t believe there was a sufficient number of skilled professionals to help them.

Moreover, 53 percent of these companies said that this lack of talent would have a negative impact on the adoption of RFID in the next two to three years. Or even sooner.

Said Sommers, “You could characterize 2005 as being the year of pilot projects and initial implementations. In 2006 and 2007, I believe you’ll see a lot more production implementations, particularly in the supply chain management arena. It will be a period of it extending beyond the early adopters into the mainstream.”

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