RFID ready: Sun

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Sun Microsystems has challenged the view that RFID is not retail-ready, arguing that partners could be earning decent revenues from deployments around the technology in the near future.

Sun Microsystems has challenged the view that RFID is not retail-ready, arguing that partners could be earning decent revenues from deployments around the technology in the near future.

Jim Clarke, chief RFID architect at Sun, said people who said RFID technology was not market-ready were mistaken.

'I don't agree with that, because we are actually deploying it in the production environment,' he said.

Clarke said however that care was needed in planning RFID projects. Vendors and partners needed to work out what specific RFID technology was suited to each deployment, and how RFID would fit into each customer's business.
'But it is ready for deployment today,' he said.

Sun has been investing in RFID projects and claims that opportunities will soon increase for partners, particularly system integrators.

RFID technology has been around for many years. It has been used in identifying ear tags for cattle since the 1980s, and by the military since World War II. But only in the last several years have businesses begun investigating it for broader applicability, for example in retail.

'Worldwide, there's major interest and funding being poured into it now, and research into things such as multi-frequency readers,' Clarke said. 'I think we are going to see a radical improvement over the next 12 months. Even in the last 12 months, I've seen radical improvements.'

US-based market research firm Venture Development Corporation has said that global shipments of RFID hardware to support supply chain management applications pipped US$89 million in 2002.

It estimated compounded annual growth rate of around 38 percent a year through to 2007.

Julie Sarabacker, director of the RFID business unit at Sun, said the vendor saw RFID as part of its vision of being able to connect everything – devices, products, even people -- to the internet.

Sun has been driving standards in conjunction with RFID centres around the globe.

'Why [RFID] is becoming so popular right now is there is new technology, new standards and new industry uses. The tags are now coming down to a price point where it makes sense to tag things like a box of Kleenex or a can of Coke,' Sarabacker said.

She said the prices of RFID tags themselves were previously too high for many potential applications, such as mass market retail. Prices for UHF tags had now come down to US 20 cents or 30 cents each and were expected to drop further.
Also, standard development was needed, she said.
'Because, in order to get everybody in your supply chain participating, you all have to talk the same [RFID] language,' Sarabacker said.

However, giant US department store chain Wal-Mart had recently committed to RFID. Its top 100 suppliers would be required to adopt RFID on its products by 2005, and the rest of its suppliers by 2006.

'Many customers understand that they can have better insight into their industry; they can reduce shrinkage and reduce labour costs,' Sarabacker said. 'Wal-Mart is looking at US$8.3 billion in savings and the biggest savings will be in labour costs.'

She said Sun believed the biggest savings for business were in labour costs. For example, if suppliers put RFID tags on its products, the department stores receiving them would no longer have to employ staff to break down the pallets and inventory the goods.

However, potential customers tended to have a lot of questions about the technology and the right ways to use it in their businesses, giving service provider and integrator partners a way to make money from the technology, she said.

Sam Liu, product manager of the RFID business unit at Sun, said RFID allowed users to track and trace products such that they could respond faster to stocking needs and changes.

Also, RFID made it easier for users to integrate their businesses with their own partners and vendors. Users could find the product their partner needed, and ship it to them right away, he said.

Sun has released RFID software this month which it claims is the first of its kind built on automatic services provisioning and capable of self-healing. Sun has opened a RFID test centre in Dallas in the US, and will open one in Europe and in Asia, he said.

Its RFID 'solution partners' so far included Nortel, Tibco Software, Texas Instruments and VeriSign. 'Customers don't want to figure out what vendors to use. Customers don't want to figure out what to use, so that is the service that Sun is providing,' Liu said.

Dr Elmer Hsu, vice-president and general director of the centre for aviation and space technology from the US-based Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), has helped establish the first RFID integration and testing centre in Taiwan.

ITRI has been involved in RFID since 2002, working to develop smaller, better and cheaper tags, with global partners from the US, he said.

'It will take over bar codes, because it can read and it can write, and information can be transmitted through current ICT. So we believe RFID will be the future,' Hsu said.

Government and department store initiatives promoting RFID would help the market soar to at least US$10 billion a year for the next 15 years, he said.

Deployments could be high risk and very expensive. At the higher levels, system integrators were needed to help develop and deploy RFID system applications and evaluations, he said.

Partners were needed to provide consulting, sales, marketing, integration, design and development services for RFID, Hsu said.

'In the last year or so, we also demonstrated the RFID application [in Taiwan]. The first demonstration was during the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak [in early 2003]. One hospital quarantined everyone,' he said.

He said RFID made it easy to track where the medical staff had been and what they had been doing. That made it easier to see if they might have contracted SARS and should be quarantined, Hsu said.

Sun's Clarke said further evolution of standards – such as the Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards -- for RFID was necessary.

For example, in Asia it seemed that every different country had subtly different standards. A worldwide consortium was needed to push for regional or worldwide standards, he said.

Meanwhile research into technical issues, such as architecting for environments using different types of sensors, was occurring, he said.

'We are hearing talk from people starting to work on multi-frequency tags and readers, so can pick available bandwidth and scan them to see which one they work with best,' Clarke said.

However, he suggested that RFID accuracy was still in doubt. 'You can't make any statements about getting 100 percent accuracy or not until you do some tests,' Clarke said.

Yet Sun, which had been RFID tagging IT hardware in its own build facility in the US state of California, had so far found that certain types of products -- such as metal and computers -- which many believed wouldn't read very well were working fine, he said.
But if a product had a lot of metal around it – such as in the metal roll cages often used for stock in UK and Australian warehouses – RFID readers could have difficulty picking up the tag's signal through the gaps in the metal, Clarke said.

Security for RFID systems, however, still had some way to go, he conceded.

Some commentators have criticised mass-market RFID as having potential for privacy invasion. If attached to retail goods, what happens when the products are sold? However, most RFID tags are relatively


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