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Executives hear about promise, limits of RFID and nanotech

Wisconsin business executives gathered in Milwaukee to hear how radio frequency identification and nanotechnology can make their businesses more competitive, but while several applications are tantalizingly close, barriers remain.

The technologies were outlined during a session of the Wisconsin Innovates Conference. Although presenters Alfonso Gutiérrez, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's RFID Lab, and Lawrence Casper, UW-Madison's assistant dean for research and technology transfer, believe these technologies will influence business in many sectors, they acknowledged that both are a bit over-hyped.

Identification from a distance

RFID is an automatic identification technology that puts data on a label or tag and captures it with a reading device using radio waves. The label consists of an integrated circuit attached to an antenna, plus protective covering like a plastic card or whatever the application requires. "RFID is not new, but it's a pretty cool technology," Gutiérrez said, summing up what all the fuss is about.

RFID dates back to the late 1940s, when the British used it to identify returning aircraft. When radar, a technology the Allies used to great effect in World War II, hit the aircraft, it would send back a signal indicating whether it was a friendly plane. Those same identifying features have applications in today's industries as a potential replacement for barcodes.
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UW-Madison's RFID Lab involves 40 companies plus students and faculty in its industry work group, and the lab is available to individual companies for sponsored company projects. Lab members take part in applied research, demonstration work, and the education of RFID and its applications.

According to Gutiérrez, the technology does not require a direct line of sight, it can read multiple products at once, and it can hold more data than a barcode. One vision is to use it to track every package in a company's supply chain or take inventory almost instantly. "Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense are pushing hard to get this," Gutiérrez said. "Many players in the supply chain would be forced to play."

In addition to national security and retail, the pharmaceutical industry is a potential customer because it's under pressure to authenticate its products. Grocery stores could use RFID to create "smart shelves" and faster checkouts, the food industry would be able to recall tainted food a lot faster, and automakers like Ford and Volkswagen already are using it to track vehicles in the pre-delivery stage. Delta Airlines might use it to track luggage, and all components of new-generation Boeing aircraft will be tracked with RFID, Gutiérrez said.

Gutiérrez said RFID technology is not simple to implement in a massive way, and international standards in radio frequencies have yet to be established despite the efforts of many organizations. Even if industry recognized the benefits immediately, he said some consumers might be reluctant to embrace it due to privacy concerns.

Alfonso Gutiérrez will explore RFID technology further at the Digital Healthcare Conference on May 3-4, 2006. Visit the DHC web site

More about RFID:

Promega spins off RFID 'smart appliance' company

Passports to contain RFID chips next year

RFID technology is opportunity for Wisconsin companies

The science of the small

Nanotechnology, the creation of useful materials through the control of matter at the nanometer scale (billionths of a metern) sounds futuristic, but it's actually a very basic enabling technology that has been around for decades.

Casper, a chemist by training, characterized nanotechnology as a "shrink wrap" of technology developed during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. The discipline uses powerful tools like the scanning tunneling microscope and processes such as molecular beam epitaxy, which has been described as a way to build layered materials by "spray painting" with atoms.

Even in the digital age, many believe "nanotech" could lead to the next industrial revolution, but misconceptions remain. "The idea that there will be a lot of 'nano' products is simply erroneous," Casper said. "There will be a lot of products with nanotechnology in them."

Promising applications include computer data storage, electronics, plastic coating, the delivery of drugs to tumors in cancer patients or the decontamination of hospitals, environmental remediation and, for national defense, the detection of botulinum toxins. Casper told the attendees that they should expect to see a lot of nanotechnology in Wisconsin business. "These are all real, not five or 10 years over the horizon," Casper said. "These are things being worked on right now."

The industrial applications are not the only ramifications being studied, Casper added. The potential environmental consequences are being examined as part of UW-Madison's Initiative on Nanotechnology.

As for nanotechnology, the speed bumps include the fact that many of the materials produced are toxic, although there have been no major incidents reported to date. Moreover, the sheer number of narrowly defined nanotechnology patents could invite litigation, and the technology is not cheap, in part because the potential applications are not as straightforward and venture capitalists have largely ignored it. "There is R&D involved," Casper said.

More about nanotechnology:

Corporate clients will dominate surge in nanotech tool demand, study projects

UW study examines public attitudes on nanotechnology

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