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RFID: Nearly Ready for Prime Time

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Sometimes being an early technology adopter can be a downer. But Bill

Miller, CIO for El Paso County in Colorado, plans to use what he has

learned from his failed radio frequency identification (RFID) project

next year, when he says the technology will be ready for prime time.

”Early adoption is generally a lot of work. We were expecting that,”

says Miller. ”But RFID just isn’t sophisticated enough yet. The

technology is extremely immature.”

Those are harsh words for the wireless tag reader technology that has

garnered backing from the likes of retail powerhouses Wal-Mart, Starbucks

and Gillette. IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass., predicts the

RFID market, including services surrounding implementation, will reach $2

billion by 2008.

But for Miller, the proof is in the $70,000 pilot.

Miller hoped to use the technology, which lets users place detailed

information on a wireless tag and then match that information via a

reader to a back-end database, to ease his asset management woes. He

planned to place RFID tags on the 2,300 desktop systems throughout the

county to track the life cycle and location of both hardware and


”Computers might show up on the network, but they’re not always in the

same place they were six months ago,” Miller says. He has a bootstrap IT

operation with only three full-time desktop people. However, he replaces

more than 400 systems in a year — finding it ”less expensive to replace

them than to fix them.”

With the RFID tags, his team would be able to do a quick walk-through on

a floor of a building and assess the location and age of the desktop

equipment by matching the tag with vital information, such as purchase

date and licensing or lease agreements, stored in an Oracle inventory

control database.

But a few months into the project, which started with the IT group’s 200

desktops, Miller found out that the readers were not mature enough for

the task. Instead, distance and interference limitations would not even

allow for the eight feet of space he needed for rapid reads.

”If you have to get right up to the PC, then this technology is of no

value,” he says. ”Sometimes we were accessing info from other units. We

weren’t able to get accurate readings.”

Although Miller has decided to table the project until 2006, he says some

valuable lessons have been learned that could help other IT executives.

”Focus on getting information in your ERP systems up to date,” he

advises. ”It’s critical if you’re going to do an accurate inventory with

the RFID tags.”

He also recommends creating a virtual team for the evaluation and

deployment of RFID technology. ”Put together your applications, systems,

production, and project management teams. Wherever you’re storing the

data, whatever databases you’re integrating with, they’re going to have

to be part of it.”

Craig Mathias, a wireless expert and principal at Farpoint Group, a

consultancy in Ashland, Mass., contends the real promise of RFID

technology is still a few years out. But he agrees with Miller that there

are things IT executives must do now to prepare for the technology.

”Probably the biggest issue surrounding RFID is database integration,”

he says. ”You want to trap and trigger the right activities stored in

the databases.”

For instance, Mathias says, hospitals could use RFID tags on all of their

equipment so they could quickly locate specialized tools in an emergency,

making better use of high-cost resources. But for this application to be

successful, he says much thought has to be put into the creation of the

back-end databases. ”What are the priorities for the information being

read?” He adds that it’s easy to gather too much information and not be

able to sort through it.

Dan Mullen, president of the Association for Automatic Identification and

Mobility, based in Pittsburgh, says the amounts of data that stream in

from readers could pose challenges for IT groups, in terms of database

processing, storage and bandwidth. All are concerns that have to be

addressed before the technology is rolled out.

One way to save on resources is to determine what information can be

handled on the front end and what should be passed along to back-end

databases. ”In some cases, you might only need to see basic information,

such as the type of product, so there’s no need to pass along the more

specific information, such as the plant it came from. In other cases, you

might want more visibility and depth.”

Mullen says IT groups also have to determine how that data is going to be

used and who it needs to get to. For instance, does it need to be sent in

real-time over mobile devices to various departments. ”Hopefully,

companies are going to use the information [being delivered], he says.

”It doesn’t do any good without business intelligence.”

A final piece of advice is to know the environment the RFID tags will be

operating in. Will there be interference from various materials?

Chris Heim, president of HighJump Software in Minneapolis, says IT

managers must consider the engineering involved in RFID deployments.

”You can’t just put an RFID tag on any substance and expect to have a

high-read rate.”

He warns that liquid and metals are difficult for RFID sensors. ”If

you’re going to put a tag on a can of pop, you’re going to have to


”There is a tremendous amount of information that will come from RFID,

but there’s more witchcraft necessary than some people are used to,” he


For Bill Miller, with a little time and preparation, the promise is still

there: ”This is a technology that’s going to be very successful in the


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