Are you, like many of our 16 000 members, confused and bewildered by the ever-changing world of Radio Frequency Identification asks e-centre executive Stuart Dean?

The following questions are asked by our membership on a continuing basis. What is this technology? How can it help my business? Will I be forced to tag my products? How much does it cost? Will it be compatible with my current systems?

Unfortunately, many of the answers are not so straightforward, yet an understanding of the core concepts could make the RFID conundrum a whole lot easier to navigate.

RFID uses radio waves to communicate the identity, and perhaps other information about an item, to which it is applied. It can best be understood as the next generation bar code, although this is much like saying the personal computer was the next generation typewriter.

A web of misconceptions constantly surrounds RFID, yet it is certainly a technology capable of enabling major changes in the way we manage supply chains.

Like a bar code or an electronic data interchange [EDI] network, an RF tag is a data carrier. A bar code carries data in a visible symbol and is read at optical or infrared wavelengths. An RFID device or tag carries data programmed into a chip and operates at radio frequencies, typically 125KHz, 13.56MHz, 2.45GHz, 433MHz and around 900MHz.

RFID systems have three main components:

1 The RFID tag with its own data, functions and physical characteristics. Essentially there are two types – passive and active. Active tags have an internal power source, usually a battery, while passive tags derive their power from the electromagnetic energy emitted by the reader.

2 The reader [static or portable] with its own functions and physical characteristics.

3 The host with its own hardware, functions and predefined tasks.

As RFID systems use radio waves, they can do things that optical technology cannot do.

• Line of sight: they can be read without being seen.

• Read range: tags can be read at very long range: many hundreds of metres in the case of very specialised tags carrying their own power supply. Passive RFID devices used in mass logistic applications need a range of at least a metre and up to 4 or 5 metres.

• Bulk read: many tags can be read in a short space of time.

• Selectivity: potentially, specific data can be read from a tag.

• Durability: tags can be hidden from the elements or placed in a plastics casing. There are ways to make them virtually tamper proof if need be.

• Read/write [RW]: RFID tags can be updated after the original data has been loaded.

When we weigh these advantages up, the potential for enhanced access to information and reduced reliance on human intervention is vast. Retailers talk of the store of the future, where everything is RFID tagged and wirelessly enabled.

Applications such as smart shelves which control inventory and theft; automatic checkouts where customers can wheel the trolley through a portal reader and collect their receipt; and intelligent advertising, which can tell when you have picked up a pasta sauce and then suggest an appropriate wine, are becoming a practical reality.

There is a need to exercise caution for we are nowhere near there yet!

RFID is an enabler, not a panacea for all ills. Issues such as prohibitive costs, the lack of open standards and technical limitations requiring complex applications engineering have long been barriers to implementation.

Add to this concerns, whether real or imagined, about safety, the environment and privacy, and it becomes easier to see why more companies have yet to roll out RFID systems.

The packaging industry will have to overcome issues such as how to incorporate the tag into the package using a process that can be mounted seamlessly on a production line.

Then there is the real cost of infrastructure, the software, hardware and system design costs, which are likely to be 10 times that of the tags and readers. Implementing RFID is not going to be easy, yet get it right and the rewards could be enormous.

Source tagging products at item level using RFID is more than a few years away but the level of interest being shown by the large multi-nationals suggests this will one day be a reality.

Our advice is to seek knowledge, begin to prepare and be ready for change.

Standards for open systems look certain to be finalised in early 2004 and, by adhering to EAN.UCC data structures and principles, one can ensure the world of tomorrow is fully compatible with the world of today.