Guest viewpoint: RFID takes off -- big time

By Dr. Peter Harrop

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., 23 Dec. 2007. Zebra Technologies Corp. in Vernon Hills, Ill., recently bought several radio frequency identification (RFID) companies, putting more than $200 million on the table. With $500 million in the bank, the company is clearly poised to do more.

In different RFID sectors, Assa Abloy Identification Technologies (Assa Abloy ITG) in Walluf, Germany, buys at least one RFID company every year. Inside Contactless in Aix-en-Provence, France, just raised $38 million to boost its effort on RFID-enabled mobile phones with Nokia. Clearly RFID is taking off -- big time.

HF RFID

Consider high frequency (HF) RFID. This is the main focus of spending on the technology, with ISO 14443 tags and systems responsible for about 10 times the order value of any other contestant. It is not strongly promoted and it is widely believed to be a mature technology with little improvement ahead of it.

Yet HF RFID is taking a huge leap forward thanks to a string of technical breakthroughs in 2007 and 2008 that sharply increase range, multi-tag reading, and tag cost and size.

These advances also promise lower cost tags and lower power readers to where battery-operated miniature readers become commonplace. In each case improvement, up to a factor of 10, is seen -- there is nothing incremental about these advances. IDTechEx, an RFID market researcher in Cambridge, Mass., has encapsulated this in the report HF RFID -- the Great Leap Forward.

Active RFID is a particularly hot sector of RFID, with tenfold increase in sales in prospect over the next 10 years powered first by real-time locating systems (RTLS) on people and assets then ubiquitous sensor systems (USS), with some merging of the two in state-of-the-art, ultra low cost radio mesh networks.

Locate and track everyone and every asset in a hospital? Monitor forest fires with a billion tags? Print RFID tags on paper? This and much more is in prospect and many new approaches make new markets a reality, including boosting the batteries with photovoltaics that work off light and heat.

For example, ultra wide band (UWB) RTLS has an unmatched combination of accuracy -- even in 3D -- avoidance of multipath and other interference, multi-tag reading at very high speed and penetration of walls. If the current growth of UWB RTLS continues, it will dominate the RTLS market within a few years.

However, as the RTLS market reaches the billions of dollars level, there will be a place for many other RTLS technologies just about to hit the market and many giant corporations are seeking to enter the business.

New innovations

Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) RFID has been newly installed in the International Space Station because of its performance and safety. Several types of RFID without the expensive silicon chip are about to hit the market, some with one hundredth of the cost and the capability of direct printing, avoiding the cost of applying a label.

Forty million people in Japan now have RFID-enabled phones and there is a clear roadmap emerging to when 1 billion or more people will have them. These phones will be to the near field communication (NFC) ISO global standards and employ an active RFID reader in the phone that can act as an active RFID tag when on and a passive one when off.

Dr. Peter Harrop is chairman of IDTechEx Inc., an RFID market-research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. For more information contact the company online at www.idtechex.com.

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