Technical specs and frequency stall local RFID plans

Sydney plays host to RFID World today but not a single vendor will be offering Electronic Product Code (EPC) compliant products simply because the specifications are yet to be ratified.

In fact the standard, ISO18000 has only recently been agreed upon.

While privacy issues surrounding RFID are fairly straight forward, the technical issues are a little more complicated and remain unresolved. One problem is frequency. In Australia, the Australian Communications Authority, (ACA) manages the frequency system and dictates the amount of power available for RFID readers.

In the US the frequency is 915MHz at 4W; locally however, the ACA has only approved 915MHz to be used at 1W which restricts the distance at which tags can be read.

An industry push is under way to change it to 925MHz at 4W, according to Geoffrey Ramadan, chairman of Automatic Data Capture Australia. Ramadan said that while waiting for standards to be ratified, companies can run RFID trials with the tags that are available now.

The currently available tags can be used for pilots and generally understanding the technology and how it fits into your business, Ramadan said. "From a commercial perspective you need to wait, but implementing RFID will require re-engineering of business processes which is a large enough task on its own."

There is still plenty of misinformation about RFID, he said, pointing out that the tags and readers cannot be read "100 metres through a brick wall in your house".

Ron Adby, general manager of Barcode Data Systems, said his parent company, Abloy, is the world's second-largest producer of RFID tags and considers the chips will revolutionize supply chain management, but not retail.

Australian industries are crying out for the technology, he said, adding that a few bugs have to be ironed out before the technology is failsafe and can be deployed easily.

Some big companies will start by using RFID in their supply chain, he said, but mainly in boutique applications – or those like animal tagging - where the system can be kept within the company.

"So far, the two issues holding back RFID in supply chain management are costs and standards. The technology is just not there yet in terms of frequencies as there is no long-range specification on single-item [tags] which you would need to read without coming up with 100 short-range tag [responses].

"Currently, it has to have a protocol that everyone can implement and there are a lot of 900MHz tags out there that can be read by only one particular reader [device]."

RFID tags that are used under the Electronic Product Code system will not contain any personal details of the purchaser, only a serial number identifying the product.

The existing and proposed frequencies of RFID in Australia are 125-134KHz (low frequency) 13.56MHz (high frequency) 915-925MHz (ultra high frequency) and 2.4GHz, which is a microwave frequency.

Unisys moves ahead with retail aspirations

Unisys plans to offer a "vendor wholistic" approach to retail, point-of-sale and supply chain management through the release of its newly-branded SUREfire application.

Shown at the Retail Business Technology forum in Melbourne last week, the SUREfire POS application is part of Unisys' bid to be a complete retail IT provider, according to the company's Asia Pacific VP Rod Gallagher.

Interest in SUREfire, he said, is due to the POS data-collating software and the retail sector's preparation for RFID tag introduction.

"For a long time we have not had our own product to support like SUREfire, but this has been architected by true retailers in the supermarket environment; they needed transactions conducted at speed and a strong backend for pricing," Gallagher said.

The uptake around SUREfire is due to the data-richness at point of sale, the ability to look easily at loss prevention and also the Web-enabled facility, he said.

So far, SUREfire is live in a few applications in Western Australia and New Zealand; however, the RFID-enabled application has yet to be fully deployed.

Cost of the tags, generally held to be one of the barriers to widespread implementation, is around US25 to 30cents per piece. Trials at this stage are mostly at the pallet level.

Tom Zielinski, managing partner of Unisys supply chain practice, said those companies that are in trials of RFID tags right now are thinking ahead, but should wait until not only the standards are clear, but for prices to fall.

"The retail system is heading to an autonomous system, and the vision of a general manager of a supermarket on a golf course checking sales figures on a PDA is a possibility today," Zielinski said adding that Unisys is putting an ecosystem in place before RFID tags reach normal barcode pricing.

"The self-checkout and whole equation of mobility will make retail the place to be in five years."

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