The RFID field has gained visibility due to mandates from Wal-Mart and the Dept. of Defense, but observers note that there are many other factors pushing manufacturers to move from bar codes to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. A growing number of food-safety groups are demanding tracing technologies, as are the automotive and pharmaceutical industries.
Concerns over disease outbreaks and bio-terrorism have prompted agencies around the globe to call for techniques to trace and recall tainted foods. Australia, the European Union, Canada, and Japan have passed traceability requirements for beef, and the FDA is requiring pharmaceutical companies to improve tracking, partly to reduce the growing problem of counterfeit drugs.
In the auto industry, the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD), passed in response to the Ford-Firestone rollover problems of a few years back, is heightening interest in this new technology. "The rapid distribution of food makes it important to have tracking mechanisms, and the TREAD Act has rapid response requirements that require companies to aggregate data quickly to provide information when there are death or serious injury accidents," says John Blanchard, food and pharmaceutical research director at ARC Advisory Group of Dedham, MA.
A driving factor is the need to determine quickly whether products should be recalled, then rapidly identify recalled products and remove them from the field. Many observers note that these legislative requirements mirror efforts by Wal-Mart and the DoD, which require vendors to begin using RFID tags on all shipments. While the legislative groups aren't generally identifying RFID, it is seen as a viable alternative in most applications.
RFID's case became stronger in late June, when factions of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Global group agreed on a single standard for RFID tags. Most suppliers feel that will make it much simpler and inexpensive to employ the technology. "The idea that we'll be required to add something where there are multiple standards scares us to death," says Patrick King, Global Electronics Strategies manager at Michelin Advanced Research Center in Greenville, SC. "We favor a single standard for aircraft, heavy equipment cars, and other industries."
Though the TREAD Act also calls for tire pressure monitoring chips, King says the two packages aren't likely to be combined, at least in the foreseeable future. Michelin has devised a technique for mounting tags in the sidewall of its tires. Putting a piece of silicon inside a flexible tire that endures harsh treatment illustrates the durability that gives the chips an edge over bar codes.
"A conveyor system we designed couldn't use bar codes because the pallets were slammed all over, so labels were destroyed. RFID tags can be placed inside the pallet, where they're protected," says Jeff Gottschalk, chief technology officer at the SMS Group, a Sidney, OH company that develops complete systems for manufacturers.
That model is expected to become common on pallets and other carriers that are used often. "Anyone who's recycling shipping containers should be able to justify RFID today," says David Quebbemann, marketing director at Omron Electronics LLC of Schaumburg, IL.
Those cost considerations should focus on the reader, not the RFID tags. "RFID will take off when readers hit the right cost structure, which is on the horizon," King says.