Glass Half Full for RFID

A wave of research advances portends a bright future for radio frequency identification technology, but RFID will take time to emerge, says Frontline keynote speaker.

Kevin Ashton
Kevin Ashton

Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends on whether you’re pouring or drinking, points out Kevin Ashton, vice president of marketing for ThingMagic, Cambridge, Mass., a four-year-old supplier of radio frequency identification (RFID) equipment.

And in an opening day keynote address at the Frontline Solutions Conference and Expo, Sept. 13-15 in Chicago, Ashton told a gathering of auto-identification industry participants that the RFID glass is definitely half full, and that the industry is still pouring. “I’m very optimistic about what’s next for RFID,” said Ashton, who is also the co-founder and former executive director of the Auto-ID Center, Cambridge, Mass., a partnership of major universites and large companies that developed the Electronic Product Code (EPC), an emerging, new RFID standard.

40-year curve

But Ashton also warned industry participants not to get ahead of themselves. The vision that RFID technology will become a ubiquitous part of business and consumer life will come, he told the group, but not as soon as some may believe. Ashton displayed a slide showing an RFID learning curve passing through four, decade-long phases: the 1990s as the decade of cost reduction; the current decade as one of standardization; the 2010s as the decade of higher functionality; and the years between 2020 and 2030 as the time when RFID reaches total ubiquity.

“There’s so much excitement about RFID that there’s a belief that we’ll reach the end of this curve this year, or by the end of the decade. And that’s just not going to happen. It’s going to take a while to put down this huge global infrastructure,” he said, and to accomplish the innovation needed to make RFID ubiquity a reality.

One development that Ashton believes will happen during this decade is the emergence of product-level RFID tags on retail store shelves, which will be read automatically by readers in the shelves. And it won’t be limited to retail stores. “Anywhere you have inventory, RFID can potentially provide real-time information about what you’ve got, every millisecond,” Ashton said. “That’s exciting to anybody who’s in the business of moving things from place to place, which is pretty much everybody.”

Trigger point

The 2003 announcement by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., of its plans for massive-scale adoption of RFID was a touch point that has triggered a tremendous amount of investment in RFID research, Ashton told Frontline attendees. And he pointed out several specific examples of recent research advances that he said were not meant to promote specific companies, but to illustrate his point about a half-full RFID glass that is still being poured.

Printed RFID antennas that are put on packaging and other materials using conductive inks are beginning to emerge, promising high volume, lower-cost antennas, and signaling a convergence of printing and electronics in the RFID space, Ashton said. A number of companies are working in the area, he said, including Precisia, an Ann Arbor, Mich., subsidiary of Flint Ink Corp. “On a roll-to-roll printing line, they can now churn out pretty darn good RFID antennas at very high speeds and at very low costs, using ink,” Ashton said. “And they’ve only just begun.”

Content insensitive RFID tags that can overcome earlier barriers involving an inability to read tags near metal are becoming available, thanks to innovations in RFID antenna design. “You could put one of these right on a carton of metal products, like cans, and it will work just fine,” said Ashton, showing an image of one specialized RFID antenna developed by Avery Dennison Corp., Pasadena, Calif. “And this is a commercial product. It’s being piloted right now. This is not some pipe dream in the lab,” said Ashton. “It’s really exciting to see these things, because a year or two ago, we just couldn’t do it, and now we can.”

Techniques such as fluidic self assembly (FSA), a technology invented at the University of California at Berkeley and developed by Alien Technology, Morgan Hill, Calif., will enable RFID tag manufacturers to “deal with very, very small silicon chips and very, very high volumes,” Ashton said. A “huge” FSA plant is currently being built in North Dakota, he added. According to Alien, the FSA technique will enable the packaging of tiny integrated circuits into EPC RFID tags at rates upwards of 2 million per hour, versus about 10,000 per hour possible with conventional methods. “Other people will find other ways to do the same thing,” Ashton said, noting that the capability to supply a high volume RFID market is now emerging.

Competition is heating up among a number of suppliers in RFID reader miniaturization, said Ashton, showing a new reader from ThingMagic that is about the size of a credit card. “On the reader side, the trend is very quickly toward miniaturization and cost reduction,” he said. “One of the things we are able to do today with readers is take advances made in cell phone technology for multi-media cell phones and reapply them to the RFID space.”

Ashton foresees the near-term emergence of active RFID relay tags, through the convergence of mesh networking and RFID technologies. Mesh network nodes, such as those supplied by Ember Corp., Boston, rely on active radio frequency technology for short haul communication with other mesh network nodes, passing data from node to node, Ashton noted. So-called Class 4 active RFID tags can serve as relay devices and are “almost exactly the same as that mesh network node,” Ashton said. “Mesh networking, which is being driven by a standard called Zigbee, is another wave that is emerging in the marketplace at about the same time as RFID, and these two things will converge very soon,” Ashton predicted.

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