With major RFID solutions providers breaking new records in sales, it's time to give the RFID market a new look - and so I did. Dragging oneself around a trade show has moments of the amazing, the boring, and the incredulous. Since research people are from Missouri, I will devote myself to the amazing and impressive, sparing the deliverers of unsubstantiated claims for other times.
Big plays for 2010
RFID technology, as well as many of the companies that develop and deliver it have come a long way in the last few years. The experience gained by having met obstacles in actual projects is now being reflected in the completeness and maturity of the solution providers. In addition, customer experiences and requests are being incorporated in significant new product features and enhancements.
Big plays are:
Interoperability of hardware
- Performance breakthroughs
- Software extensions
- Business Solutions
Finally, one device for the user! Devices from a variety of solution providers such as TagSense, Motorola
, cell phone providers, and iAPPS developers address applications ranging from onsite to global-reach communications.
Some examples are:
- Doubling up Bar-coding/laser and RFID for retail and warehouse applications. These devices actually sense what they need to read, requiring no operator intervention.
- Doubling up on Passive and Active RFID. This is a most important development: the ability to have passive and active readers on a single small device. These smaller form factors and functionally packed devices help make the technology ubiquitous.
Getting smaller tags and readers into the market to assure diversity in locations such as offices, "the road," embedded in other hardware and equipment (not just in portals and gates solutions) is crucial to the growth of the market.
There is so much "stuff" out there. Companies provide devices of all kinds, and they all have their add-ons. Until now, users have had to purchase single function devices for each application and each location (e.g., hand held, checkout). Keeping track of all those devices, keeping the hardware provisioned and secure is a big tracking task for the companies that use them. Confronting the various business usage scenarios, frequencies, form factors and location-based challenges drives users to ask for "the one device."
Simplifying the platform with more options on a single device helps the hardware vendors, too. The level of configurations, features, and add-ons has to be a huge challenge for hardware companies trying to keep track of that entire inventory plus the on-going cost of rapid obsolescence.
Performance improvements continue: Significant improvements have been made in the performance of RFID in memory, speed, and location and directionality functions. What applications will leverage 6x read/write speeds, gigabytes of memory or directionality, all on the tiniest of chips? Many!
Good examples are:
The software play
- Tego had a great announcement from Airbus, who will be using Tego's high memory tags. Tego has stayed a determined course over the last few years to get to this point.
- Impinj has not only introduced major breakthroughs in tags, but a much cheaper and higher performing reader which can reduce or eliminate big portal purchases in warehouses.
- Ramtron's entry into the RFID markets. Ramtron, no newcomer to the semiconductor business, has released some potential game-changer devices that offer an exponential increase in read/write performance and high memory.
A significant, and much needed, trend emerging from the market place is the "softwarification" of providers. Early starters in the middleware play, such as Oat
(now owned by Checkpoint) and Acsis
still operate strong customer bases and exert expanding presences in the market. But at RFID Live, RFID Global Solutions
, Xterprise, and others represent this growing trend
. I met with CEOs of these companies to understand why they migrated to software and SaaS platforms. Simply stated, it was always about the business: data and context and what businesses can do as people, products, situations, and business events change. RFID is better at capturing the moment, but in order to reap full value, the transformation into a real business application is needed. Read more on this trend here
Solutions at Last
The best of show was the great number of full-solution providers for an increased variety of business challenges. Three such firms - Convergence and AssetPulse, Rush Tracking
, and Intelligent InSites - stand out. Each of these companies demonstrates the evolution in solutions (see figure 1 below), from device-focused to "now-addressing" actual business problems.
As the market evolves, full-solution providers have gone from showing up to help you figure out how to use the devices, to solving broad-based business challenges. Initially it was about tags and readers. The next phase in the market has been providing some tracking components, often through partnerships between software and device companies. The food and pharmaceutical markets come to mind, with dozens of trace and track offerings. These capabilities can't stand alone, but need to integrate with labeling applications or other business solutions. Now we do have vendors whose solutions have internalized the full business challenge, and defining RFID is part of the means to the end, not their full offering.
Here are some examples:
Convergence Systems Limited tracks people, not just things, with their Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS). This functions well for assuring people safety in hazardous environments. RTLS has come a long way; however, huge challenges remain with these implementations. To complete their solution, they partner with AssetPulse who provides the software that does on-site assets tracking and also provides asset tracking across the supply chain.
Warehouse and inventory systems are moving beyond the closed loop with mere tracking capabilities. Rush Tracking, for example, implements an inventory system that facilities the entire warehouse operation: put away, pick and ship, as well as a kind of perpetual inventory system. Their approach limits the need for cycle counting in many cases, as well as the perplexing space-optimization in warehouse design. (More on this in our upcoming Logistics issue in May).
Moving through the site and across the enterprise is Intelligent Insights. Though they marketed themselves as an RTLS system at this conference, they are more than just that, with a full architecture framework providing visibility across many business processes.
We have seen RFID attempting to meet challenges such as industry-wide compliance, track and trace, recall systems, securing the food or drug supply and even the borders of nations. That's a tall order! So casting aspersions on the slow growth of the market should be put in context of the vision and challenges ahead.
To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.