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Managing the RFID opportunity

Don't let hype overshadow risk

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The use of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags is becoming a hot topic for developers and business (visit the independent - sponsored by both the UK Government and commercial organisations - UK RFID Centre here).

IT vendors, who've been suffering fairly flat sales recently, are also honing in on the opportunites it presents.

At the same time, the sort of manager who couldn't see the point of bar-coding is determined not to miss the boat this time - if you can locate everything in your factory in real time and at a distance, surely the opportunities for managing your organisation, and controlling the people in it, are revolutionary?

There is no question that RFID is the next big thing, although as Terry McIntyre, TNT Logistics RFID project leader in North America, says, bar-coding's reign is far from over and will be around in hybrid bar-coding/RFID applications for some time.

McIntyre is responsible for an operational RFID project for TNT Logistics, which delivers real-time visibility and synchronised assembly processes to automotive manufacturers using TIBCO's RFID technologies, among others. And his insight into the issues raised by RFID technology are worth considering.

The good news

Often, as McIntyre points out, the enabling technology for an RFID project is already available, for (almost) nothing. Much of the wireless RFID infrastructure McIntyre exploits has already paid for itself in keeping track of large and valuable assets: "We're helping Ford leverage its IT infrastructure for other things," he explains, extending it to provide the infrastructure for complete supply-chain transparency.

He says the choice of partner in such initiatives is important - partners should have sufficient experience and sufficiently robust technology to form a basis for extended RFID deployment. Nevertheless, you should probably aim to pay for the technology with the returns from the first project, not from anticipated future benefits.

The RFID vision is, in essence, complete knowledge of the spatial location (and state) of objects of interest throughout the business process, without the need for error-prone and expensive manual data entry. Initially, however, the most common use will probably be to increase supply-chain transparency.

However, there are real issues if you are to make this vision come true.

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