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With privacy issues waning, RFID begins ramp up

The Item Level RFID Initiativeheld its latest meeting in early January during the National Retail Federation's annual convention in New York. The Item Level RFID Initiative consists of major retailers, suppliers, and technology providers who have banned together to accelerate the use of item level RFID tagging in the apparel supply chain.

During the meeting, the group outlined its goals for 2011, which include serialization issues, tag standardization, finding ways to decipher tons of new data made available from RFID, and exposing ROI use cases for apparel manufacturers.

It's interesting to note that privacy concerns were not high on the list for 2011. That's an important development, given that just a few years ago retailers shied away from any mention of item level RFID because they feared adverse reactions from customers. Many retailers operated RFID pilots in secrecy in order to avoid publicity over the technology.

In fact, when Levi Strauss bravely announced it was piloting RFID at a couple of stores in Mexico several years ago, privacy activists quickly picketed the locations, concerned that personal identities might be stolen.

But those fears seem to have mostly faded. Retailers are still sensitive to privacy issues, and the item level group has formed of a privacy sub-committee to examine privacy concerns that might surface as item level tagging becomes more commonplace. Most notable is the issue of what to do with tags on garments after a purchase.
The retail industry should be commended for pursuing RFID technology, especially when it seemed like prolonged privacy issues might severely hinder deployment. But the battle isn't over, which is why it's crucial to monitor privacy issues and to work on educating consumers and politicians about the benefits of RFID. A large group of students opposed the use of RFID at Northern Arizona University last year, with over 1,600 signing up for a Facebook page to protest the deployment of RFID to aid professors in taking attendance.

The recent unveiling of RFID at Vail, Beaver Creek and Keystone also resulted in an adverse reaction from skiers who think the system is an invasion of privacy. The RFID-enabled Epic pass system allows skiers to record the terrain they ski and share their data with friends on Facebook.

And since it is the beginning of the year, there will likely be the usual legislative efforts to limit the usage of RFID at the state level. While most of these efforts fail, they do require the time and resources of lobbyists. Last year, for example, the New Hampshire House passed a bill for the fourth consecutive year seeking to limit the use of RFID in state driver's licenses and tolls. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate once again.

RFID technology has tremendous use cases for consumer-facing industries like retail, healthcare and entertainment. At the retail level, consumers can benefit from greater availability of goods on store shelves, since RFID gives retailers better visibility into their inventory. RFID can also make warranty information more manageable, while greatly simplifying the returns process.

Of course, industry has much to gain from RFID, which allows for better inventory visibility, chiefly because the technology does not require line-of-sight to scan tags. So retailers can scan 10 pairs of jeans at the checkout counter in seconds, as opposed to scanning a barcode on each item. They can take inventory just as fast. Walmart is using item level RFID on men's jeans and underwear at all of its store that carry clothing (over 3,000), and will likely expand on that initiative later this year.

The healthcare industry represents another big winner. Hospitals are embracing asset tracking, as tags placed on expensive equipment like IV pumps and wheel chairs allow them to be located immediately instead of going missing for days. Inventory management is a sweet spot for RFID in both the manufacturing and hospital environment.

RFID-enabled tool cribs track the use of tools on the shop floor, and similar RFID cabinets and refrigerators monitor expensive inventory in hospitals and research labs. In a hospital, RFID-enhanced refrigerator units not only keep track of who checks out supplies, but can monitor product expiration dates and eliminate the possibility that expensive drugs and surgical supplies will go bad and be tossed away. In addition, healthcare providers can cut unnecessary safety inventory and be better informed when it comes to making bulk purchases.

The big win lies with patient safety, as RFID assures that the right products are on hand for every surgical procedure. RFID tags are even being attached to surgical sponges and other products, reducing the possibility of a sponge remaining in a patient following a surgical procedure.

So the benefits of RFID are numerous. And while privacy concerns seem to be dissipating, technology providers and end users need to remain diligent when it comes to educating their customers and legislators about the benefits of the technology.

Recent column by Joe Pleshek

Joe Pleshek is CEO and President of Terso Solutions, Inc.. Terso offers RFID based inventory management solutions for life sciences, health care, and medical device manufacturers. Joe has extensive experience with RFID, leading large scale projects across a variety of industries.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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