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RFID starting to make real impact on business

With today's issue, Wisconsin Technology Network launches a special section devoted to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. While the technology is not new, it is only now beginning to make a real impact on business. It is from that perspective that we present this series of articles on RFID, articles written by WTN writers and contributed by Wisconsin experts in business and academia.

In Wisconsin, businesses and organizations are steeping themselves in RFID, partly based on directives from the Department of Defense and from retail giant Wal-Mart, which hopes to achieve better supply chain management from the technology.

But those mandates are not solely behind the drive toward widespread adoption of the technology. The simple promise of greater operating efficiency, which Wal-Mart continually seeks, presents hope for any business that seeks to be more competitive.

Further, businesses and organizations, particularly in the health care industry, are realizing security and safety benefits from RFID technology.

In our series of articles, we'll tell you about some of those efforts, and how Wisconsin companies and educators are playing a key role in advancing the technology.
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On the academic level, the recent opening of the RFID lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's E-Business Consortium brought international attention. (Click here to read the WTN article on the lab.) And in Milwaukee, the Center for Technology Innovation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Business is studying RFID.

Those academic endeavors are helping businesses understand the financial implications of RFID, and are helping advance the technology.

At the business level are Wisconsin companies that have joined the ranks of RFID technology providers, as well as companies that have adopted RFID technology to streamline their supply chains.

The strong presence of the packaging and printing industries in Wisconsin gives the state some competitive advantage in the RFID arena. While early use of RFID has involved placement of RFID tags on shipping pallets, more advanced uses have involved tagging individual packages, often through RFID chip embedded labels. Among the leaders in development of such labels is the multi-billion dollar company NCR, which is printing RFID labels at its plant in Viroqua in western Wisconsin. And papermaker Kimberly-Clark is deep into RFID at in Neenah, Wis.

While academic and business and academic leaders are addressing the technological challenges that remain with RFID, such as signal strength and barriers to signals posed by certain materials, groups such as those within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's RFIB lab are working on standards for a global tracking system for product inventories.

One of the most significant hurdles to overcome, however, is cost. While RFID tags can cost 50 cents apiece, industry leaders say the cost must go down to five cents per tag for the technology to be economically acceptable to business.

Investors also are closely watching what happens with RFID, as they expect the area to be a $5 billion market by the end of 2007 - a 50 percent growth over current market levels.

In today's installments of our RFID special section, we offer a look at the history of RFID and at some of the significant Wisconsin players in the provider area, such as I.D.ology, ABC Computers, and Matrix Development.

Next Thursday's RFID articles will cover the technology's use in health care and, on a related note, how the FDA is evaluating RFID as part of an initiative to improve identification systems for medical device equipment.

Subsequent issues will present stories on portable readers of RFID information, on a Madison bicycle company that has embraced the technology, on the technological issues of RFID signal antennas and on other issues and companies.

This special section also includes previous RFID stories published by Wisconsin Technology Network, including that on the recent opening of the RFID lab at UW-Madison.

See previous WTN coverage on RFID:
RFID expert says piecemeal approach won't work
UW-Madison RFID technology lab debuts Friday
RedPrairie releases prepackaged RFID systems

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