Of the technologies that promise to revolutionise society, radio frequency identification (RFID) is probably still one of the most exciting given the tremendous range of applications in which it can be used.
“Uptake in South Africa hasn't reached a critical level yet, but we are seeing movement on both a regulatory and operational level that should give some much-needed impetus to this technology,” says Libby Ballardin, head of printer distributor Printacom's industrial printing division.
“For example, the Department of Home Affairs has recently announced that all new South African passports will have an RFID chip embedded to provided added security and functionality. By the same token, the announcement two years ago by the Gauteng government that it would be introducing RFID tagging in new number plates has still not seen the light of day.”
Ballardin's interest in RFID tagging stems from the Printronix RFID barcode printers that the distributor recently introduced into the South African market.
His view of the state of the market is supported by a recent report by research firm Gartner entitled RFID in the 2009 Supply Chain.
The author of the report summarises the current state of play by noting that while the interest in RFID has not diminished, companies are realigning their strategies to deliver real business benefits while also adopting best practices that have started to emerge.
“No longer is RFID a technology looking for a business problem – users want to know if an RFID enabled solution is the right solution to their specific supply chain business issue,” reads the report.
Ballardin says the local environment for the wide-spread adoption of RFID technologies is improving, with key requirements such as an approved industry standard and a growing number of system vendors helping to build momentum.
“There is no doubt that RFID has a very distinct role to play in automating logistics in the supply chain, and we have positioned ourselves to take advantage of that. The big question is the rate of adoption and the rollout of the back-end systems to support that vision,” he says.
Gartner suggests that industry-wide adoption would be aided if companies applied seven RFID best practices that it has identified as key to a successful implementation.
The starting point, the reports suggests, is to determine the business case and realistically examine alternatives. “Don't proceed unless there is a clear-cut business case and an identified return on investment,” warns Gartner.
The second element is to ensure that the chosen solution is aligned to the business processes, after which it is important to match the hardware capability with the operational environment.
“Technologies are converging, which offers more options for the user to consider, especially as the combination of reads from different tag technologies has the potential to enable broader business processes,” says Gartner.
While it may seem self-evident, the report points out that data quality is paramount to the success of the system and also that a decision has to be made on whether it will be a closed-loop or open-loop system. “Technical and standards issues are often reduced with closed-loop projects, and because the focus of the deployment is narrower, the business case is typically more visible and easier to articulate.”
Gartner also warns that selecting the correct vendor is crucial to installing an appropriate solution, and that this selection process should revolve around ensuring that the service provider has a keen understanding of the client's industry and requirements.
Lastly, Gartner says that companies must understand their immediate need, address that and only then look at how the RFID infrastructure can be applied to address other areas of the business.
“Not all RFID deployments are the same, and architectural needs will be vary. Key characteristics, such as tag density and network speed and stability will be key in determining which type of application architecture will be best-suited to a particularly RFID project,” writes the author.