Nov 13, 2006 Dr Peter Harrop
At IDTechEx, when we teach Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), we talk of it being a ubiquitous enabling technology like the wheel or paper. Some people consider that to be rather far fetched. After all, wheels extend from prayer wheels, steering wheels and wheels of fortune to aircraft wheels and microscopic wheels in Micro Electro Mechanical Systems MEMS. They are everywhere, as is paper because that appears as anything from art to toilet paper, packaging, books and origami.
However, RFID is now used from Bulgaria to Namibia, from Azerbaijan to Vietnam and Antarctica. It is a life to death experience because it is on containers of sperm and new born babies but it also marks burial plots. The Federal Emergency Management Agency in the USA puts RFID on corpses. Somewhere in between, RFID traces anodes in copper smelters and controls paedophiles. There are well over 10,000 RFID projects out there and there are over 1000 suppliers that have now landed substantial orders for the specialist RFID hardware and services involved. Yet things have barely started. For examples, 50,000 libraries should be tagging everything for many benefits but only 500 (1%) have done so as yet.
The IDTechEx RFID Knowledgebase has captured over 2300 cases of RFID in action involving over 2500 organisations in 85 countries. That includes all the examples we have mentioned above. We are now adding cases at twice the rate of one year ago as RFID truly permeates the whole planet.
RFID is monitoring the post in Algeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and it being used in the Philippines in the form of Stored Value Cards SVCs to replace cash and reduce queues. Road tolling is a use in Slovakia. For proof of ownership it is on reindeer in Lapland. In precious wild plants in New Zealand, it has led to arrests under conservation orders. RFID tags on prepared sushi meals in Japan permit the staff to automate payment and stocktaking but in Antarctica it has enabled research on the behaviour of penguins. In Thailand, they like to put RFID on chickens for disease control and they use it in cock fighting. In South Africa, RFID tracks ore but in Turkey they encounter it as a loyalty card.
In Canada, they have been tracking food trolleys in their aircraft but Italy has RFID on intelligent mooring buoys in marinas giving personalised promotional messages when you tie up. Australia tags boats for theft prevention. The Australians tag racehorses by law but the Canadians tag fish for conservation. In the UK RFID has been used to research the behaviour of insects including butterflies and IDTechEx has several studies of the tagging of elk but not in China, where pandas are the centre of attention.
RFID is the basis of an automated tour of a museum in Korea and it prevents theft in art galleries in France - an improvement on the crude performance of the traditional anti-theft tag in shops and libraries, which is not RFID. From casino chips in the USA to a multifunctional bank card in Azerbaijan, national identification cards in Estonia, China and Oman, weapons permits in Honduras, laptop theft prevention in Brazil and police evidence bags in the UK, one can only wonder what comes next. There is access control in Mexico, student tracking in India and Japan (for safety and attendance control), passports in Slovenia but they have all been done.
RFID is about Government spending
RFID companies that believe that RFID is all about civil supply chains are more likely to lose money, sometimes spectacularly so. Those that investigate where the money is really being spent and where the competition is lighter are generally prospering, from Lockheed Martin sitting on the world's largest RFID order of $425 million for the US Military and a group of Chinese companies rolling out the $6 billion China National ID Card scheme and other companies salivating about the planned UK national ID card scheme which promises to burn many times that sum giving cards to 15% of the number of people involved in China. Governments have placed the big orders for RFID so far, including tagging post boxes in Saudi Arabia - a world first - and the massive Hong Kong Octopus card scheme for almost all transport and now for general shopping and equivalent schemes to Octopus across China. Sometimes it is local government that has the big chequebook as with mass transit card schemes, something that enabled ERG of Australia to be a US$137 million RFID business with installed equipment from Gothenburg to Beijing responsible for five billion transactions yearly. RFID is even used by the French navy on nuclear submarines and implanted into government employees in Mexico.
RFID is about security
Most of the government backed RFID is about security but what made a Swedish company largest in RFID today? It was secure access, with Assa Abloy enjoying something in the region of $300 million in sales from its ten carefully chosen RFID acquisitions in or near this sector.
RFID is about error prevention
Those thinking of RFID for replacing barcodes and at least civil supply chains are boxing themselves into a corner. The biggest RFID application in Healthcare is the 40 million tags delivered for error prevention on AstraZeneca anaesthetic Diprivan used in operating theaters. The many drug trials that have RFID-enabled, compliance-monitoring blisterpacks this year are concerned with error prevention. The TREAD Act in the US is expected to drive RFID into every car tyre for error prevention. The largest milk cooperative in the world, Fonterra of New Zealand, has ordered over 500,000 tags for milk samples and preventing mistakes with pipe connections and, in a way, the tagging of over ten million test tubes used for blood samples and drug development (potential several billion yearly) is associated with automated recordkeeping because humans make errors. Indeed, the tagging of mothers and new born babies in German, US and other hospitals is concerned with preventing mother baby mismatches which have reached 20,000 yearly in the US alone. That is just the reported ones. Beyond error prevention, there is anti-counterfeiting of drugs, designer goods and cigarettes and more that is being progressed ahead of conventional track and trace. It has potential of 150 billion yearly just for those three types of product. Is that really a niche market?
The bottom line
The bottom line is that RFID is being used for security, safety, error prevention, anti-counterfeiting, cost reduction, increasing sales, entertainment, crime prevention, customer convenience and art and there is more to come. It is rather as if we had just invented the wheel.....or paper.