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RFID will replace bar codes, if new partnership succeeds

How would your company's asset management strategy change if you could use a wireless device to track everything from products to computers to soda cans in the lunchroom? Three groups are joining forces in an effort to commercialize the RIFD technology that could make such a scenario possible.

The Auto-ID Center, a research facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has announced a partnership with the Uniform Code Council Inc. and EAN International to form an organization dedicated to creating and commercializing global standards for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

The new organization, AutoID Inc., will work to commercialize RFID technology and standardize the technology around the world. As part of the agreement, the UCC, a Lawrenceville, N.J., nonprofit group that manages standards for technology used in the supply chain -- such as the bar code -- will also gain an exclusive license to use MIT's electronic product code technology.

The creation of AutoID Inc. represents a shift from RFID research to commercialization, said Chris Hook, director of radio frequency programs at the UCC.

Radio frequency tracking systems have been around for years and are a mainstay in many supply chains. But because of their high cost, the devices have largely been limited to tracking pallets, shipping containers and large, expensive products. However, the Auto-ID Center, along with nearly 100 partner organizations, has developed RFID tags that are cheaper and smaller than anything on the market today.

The price of tags developed by the Auto-ID Center's partner companies is nearing 5 cents apiece, inexpensive enough that companies such as Gillette Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have pledged to buy hundreds of millions of them to identify pallets and cases of products in the supply chain and, eventually, products on shelves.

The tags are designed to one day replace the universal product code (UPC) as the primary means of identifying and tracking products as they move through global supply chains. With these tags, companies will be able to track the movement of individual products, rather than the vague product types that today's bar codes track.

AutoID Inc. is scheduled to begin its work in November.

"I consider this to be a seminal event," said Peter Abell, research director for global retail at Boston-based AMR Research. Abell said that not only is RFID moving toward commercialization, but it is also doing so ahead of schedule.

The RFID chips themselves are tiny devices that broadcast a number when they are activated by a reader. In addition to making RFID tags available at a dramatically low cost, the Auto-ID Center was able to create multi-band readers for the chips. This was an essential step required for commercialization, said Abell, because of the complexity of creating a global system using radio technology.

The spectrum bands that are available for commercial use differ from country to country. Unlike bar codes, RFID chips broadcast a signal, meaning they can both interfere with other devices and be interfered with. With a multi-channel reader, countries can use various frequencies and still have access to the technology, Abell said.

While RFID offers a grand vision for product-tracking from ships, trucks and warehouses to store shelves and consumers' homes, making the vision a reality may be a ways off, said Mike Guillory, director of industry relations and standards activities at Intermec Technologies Corp., a longtime provider of RFID tags for the supply chain. Intermec is also a member of the Auto-ID Center.

"We are more conservative," he said, adding that he supports the RFID industry's grand vision. "We want to ensure that the vision has a basis in reality. We want to provide credible, usable technology to customers today, while looking forward to that vision."

AutoID Inc. is an important step, Guillory said, but there are a lot of steps ahead for this new technology.

This article originally appeared on

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