It’s been more than 10 years since the Auto-ID Center was founded at MIT. The Center served as a launch pad for RFID innovation, and was the birthplace of companies like ThingMagic, OAT Systems and others.
With co-founders Sanjay Sarma and David Brock set to take the stage at Wednesday’s Auto-ID & Sensing Solutions Expo at MIT, we caught up with Sarma for his insight on RFID’s journey since the early days at the Auto-ID Center, as well as where the technology is headed.
Sarma was recently named chairman of the Board of Governors at EPCglobal. He is credited with developing many of the standards that allowed RFID to take hold in the commercial RFID industry.
It’s been more than 10 years since the MIT Auto-ID Center was founded. Where is RFID today?
“RFID has crossed the chasm and the technology has truly has found a vertical that it can thrive in. That vertical is apparel. What that is doing is establishing a business process where fundamentally, there is no question about its viability.”
Did you think it would take this long for a vertical to emerge?
“There is always a lot of resistance to change in business. When people want to change business processes, they find a way to do it. When they don’t want to, they find a reason not to. So it’s been 10 years of banging our heads against an immovable object, but now we’ve moved it just a little bit. With the apparel market taking off there is much more interest and desire to adopt RFID into business process change.”
Was the apparel industry even on the radar screen 10 years ago?
“We knew it would be one of three or four verticals that would emerge. I didn’t know it would be apparel, although at some point I realized it would be very likely, given the high number of SKUs in the apparel segment.”
There are missteps along the path to maturity for all new technologies. Can you name one for RFID?
“The paradigm that I always knew would happen, and has now happened, is handheld readers. I always felt that the fixed reader model that people were pushing was somewhat flawed. A hand-held reader is a single reader that goes everywhere. If you don’t need things to be real time (from a fixed reader), you might as well go with a handheld reader. That’s a paradigm I saw in the 2003 or 2004 time frame.”
Was there a part of the development cycle that caught you off guard?
“Yes. It was that we initially concentrated so many resources on readers and tags and that wasn’t the real delay to adoption. It was everything else. That was a surprise. It was things like wiring, IT integration, staff training, business process change, internal evangelism. All of that stuff delayed adoption.”
While retail makes all the headlines, what industries will follow next?
“After retail I think it will be manufacturing industries: such as the construction industry and the automotive industry. For any industry that relies on just-in-time, especially with mass customization, it’s a no brainier they have to use RFID. The reason is that parts need to show up at the right time and in the right order. If the wrong part shows up, the construction may have to be halted. RFID can help prevent that.”
We’ve heard about the 5-cent tag for years. Is a 5-cent tag possible?
“Yes, absolutely! The added costs are coming from packaging today, and that’s an old-fashioned industry. It’s hard to change that industry. If there was a desire and a concerted effort to get the 5-cent tag, it’s very much within reach today.”
What major changes will RFID see in the next 12-18 months?
“The bulk of the innovation on the tag side and protocol side is done. I think there will be a lot of lot of innovation in packaging and manufacturing. I don’t believe we’ve seen anywhere near the best technology in terms of how you actually put chips on things. So there is enormous amount of progress that will happen there.
“RFID is in the process of going from an afterthought to a full thought. But it’s still closer to the afterthought. So the whole packaging aspect of RFID is still very much in its infancy.”
Any other game-changing technology developments on the horizon?
“I believe that we are close to a time when RFID readers will be turned on with a 4G connection and instantly appear on middleware in the cloud. This is another gigantic opportunity. We’ll still need a box in the edge, especially if you need a response that is faster than a couple of seconds. But if you can wait three or five seconds, such as confirming that the right product was loaded into a truck, then this is in fact already happening.”
Have you ever thought about the global financial savings that RFID contributes to industry?
“I think it’s a huge number, but it’s also hard to compute. But consider that Amazon acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million. They valued a warehouse robot system at $775 million. Amazon must have done the cost benefit analysis on how these robots make warehouses more efficient. The point is that logistics is a place where we leak money. RFID’s contribution there can be huge.”