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The Son of Bar Code is Here

Once it tracked cattle, now it will track anything and everything. Radio Identification has acquired new hues and is finding favour with all and sundry

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

At Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku metro station, the world’s second largest, you can point your cell phone at a ‘SuiPo’, or ‘smart poster’, and download information from it directly onto your phone. Better still is an example from closer home, the semi-final match of the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy in Jaipur, where you went through the turnstiles with an ‘e-ticket’; the first time such a device was used in a cricketing event anywhere. What makes these seemingly disparate events possible is Radio Frequency IDentification, or RFID, a technology that’s being touted as the next stage in the evolution of the IT industry.

At its most basic level, RFID involves devices called RFID ‘smart tags’, tiny radio transmitters that can store data and can be attached to an object, animal or person. The data contained in the tags can be read from a distance using radio waves, which means that once an object is tagged, it can be identified remotely by using an RFID reading device. If we are to believe the publicists, RFID has the potential to change, among other things, the way people shop and travel; companies store and transport goods; and governments handle security.

Naturally, the handful of RFID experts in India today are an excited lot, now that the technology has negotiated the notoriously long-winded path that leads from research lab to shop floor. In the words of Prof. Santanu Chaudhury of I.I.T, Delhi, “the technology has tremendous potential. Apart from conventional applications, it can also be used in areas like security; for example, to track vehicles, or to help physically disabled people to find their way in public places like airports”.

For the average person though, a more pleasing effect of the technology would be shorter queues at the supermarket counter. RFID is set to replace the current bar code system which requires each item to be scanned individually, with its ‘smart tags’ that automatically ‘communicating’ each product’s details to an RFID reader, helping process shopper queues much faster. Moreover, an RFID-enabled system would technically save businesses time and expense throughout the supply chain by enabling identification and tracking of every single product from the factory to the point of purchase.

Startup companies are scrambling to get a share of the emerging RFID market pie, estimated by Gartner Research to be around $ 3 Billion by the year 2010. In India, biggies like Infosys, Wipro and TCS are all already on to the bandwagon, and so are several specialised players like Oat Systems, Avaana, Skandsoft and Orizin Technologies. Gemini Traze, a company based in Chennai, recently opened India's first RFID tag manufacturing plant at the Sriperumbudur electronic park, with a capacity to produce 45 million tags annually. Enterprising companies like the Mysore-based Orizin Technologies are running projects in fields as varied as “real-time jewelry tracking, library cataloguing, patient tracking for hospitals and a reel tracking system for film distributors. We are even doing a prisoner tracking system for an international clients,” says Sunil Kumar, Vice President - Business Development & Sales of Orizin.

Worldwide, the commercial use of RFID received a big fillip when Wal-Mart made it mandatory for its suppliers, announcing its arrival as a ‘certified’ next generation technology. In India, Madura Garments, was one of the first major corporations to implement RFID technology throughout its supply chain process, from its factories through warehouses and right up to an RFID-enabled retail outlet called ‘Planet Fashion’ in Bangalore. According to NP Singh, CIO of Madura Garments, it has resulted in “a 500 percent improvement in process times”. Pantaloon Retail, their chief rival, too is running an RFID pilot project at its Tarapur factory and warehouse complex.

While Retail is the most talked about commercial application, a closer look reveals that RFID‘s real success lies elsewhere. “60 to 70% of the worldwide RFID industry is involved in equipment tracking, security, manufacturing and so on. This is true in India as well, where heavy industries and manufacturing companies like Bajaj Auto, HPCL and Maruti are more actively involved in RFID than Retail companies”, says Ashish Vikram, Managing Director of OAT Systems India which specialises in RFID-based solutions. He also thinks that talk of an 'RFID Revolution' is premature. "It took the bar code about 30 years to get where it is. RFID will take another 10-12 years before it’s widely adopted," he says. Prof. Chaudhury agrees, saying that “first cost should come down and ruggedness must increase before we see widespread application of RFID.”

RFID has also found its way into areas outside the commercial space in India. The ICC Trophy ‘e-ticketing’ experiment was a coup of sorts, its success encouraging the Rajasthan Cricket Association to extend RFID-enabled ticketing to its future events. The Delhi Metro already uses the technology for its ‘contact-less’ tickets, Kolkata plans to follow suit, while the Railway Ministry itself has plans to use RFID to track its massive wagon fleet. The central government is not far behind either, with plans to use RFID in e-governance and e-passport initiatives where RFID can ensure document authenticity and faster transactions.

However, RFID evangelists still complain about the skepticism and the ‘wait and watch’ attitude of the market. "On the technology side, there is definitely a global dearth of proven RFID expertise. In 2003, the market reacted with pure skepticism. From then on, it has gone through a process of learning, moving on to pilot projects, and now we’re about to see full-scale adoption", says Bimal Sareen, the President of the RFID Association of India, an industry organisation that promotes the technology in India.

Skepticism about RFID though, is not limited to just commercial or technical feasibility. The technology has raised hackles of activists in the West who are particularly concerned about the threat it poses to privacy. Industry insiders like Sareen are quick to dismiss such concerns as mere hobbyhorses of Western activists, saying “such concerns are those generally applicable to information security, and not specific to RFID”. Ultimately, it all boils down to the larger question of just how much ordinary citizens can rely on governments and corporations to use the technologies at their disposal responsibly; and that’s one debate that won’t be settled anytime soon. India has different socio-economic priorities as well as different cultural conceptions of privacy from that of the West, and for now at least, such concerns don’t figure much on the radar of activists, media or the general public here. And that’s a fact the RIFD industry here can be counted to cash in on.

Despite the hurdles in its way, and suspicions about its potential for misuse, RFID does seem to be here to stay. Once adapted widely, it promises to bring new efficiencies to corporations, more teeth to security agencies, and smoother shopping experiences to consumers. Whether it will live up to that promise will depend on just how smart the ‘smart tags’ prove to be in practice.


Sep 29, 2007

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