The Son of Bar Code is Here
it tracked cattle, now it will track anything and everything. Radio Identification
has acquired new hues and is finding favour with all and sundry
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
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
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
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.