WANTED: RFID Integrators

RFID as a technology is nothing new. The U.S. Department of Defense has been using it for years to track large assets like Humvees and tanks. But, today, with huge retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and others mandating that their suppliers implement the technology, it is finally making its way into corporations nationwide.

Because of these mandates and the maturing of the technology, RFID technology is expected to take off “exponentially” next year as companies finally begin to move beyond the pilot stage of adoption, said Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, an association of data integrators.

By the year 2010, between 60,000 and 80,000 companies are expected to deploy the technology to meet customer mandates like those put forth by Wal-Mart, said Dave Sommer, CompTIA’s vice president of electronic commerce.

Of course, with so few rank-and-file companies deploying the technology today, “exponentially” is a relative term. But because there are so few companies with in-production RFID systems in place, there also are relatively few integrators that know all the ins and outs of deploying the technology — especially if you are looking to do more than just replace bar codes with RF tags, i.e. write to them as well.

“We’re in the same stages now as bar codes were in its infancy, after it had been accepted as ‘Gee, this is something we need to look at,'” said Bill Hoffman, vice president of Business Development for Advanced ID, an RFID supplier to the livestock industry. “What we’re seeing happen in 20 years (with bar code technology adoption) we’re going to see it happen in five and probably more like three.”

Even so, companies planning to go beyond a pilot and roll out RFID into a production environment this year could face a shortage of qualified integrators to implement the technology and train in-house staff to use it.

This could lead to high integration costs for early adopters, implementations that do not produce the expected results due to lack of experience, and schedules not being met, said CompTIA’s Sommer.

“There’s a greater likelihood that the people (CIOs) would hire to integrate an RFID solution have really limited knowledge of the elements — and the abilities to implement RFID solutions,” he said. “There’s a certain set of knowledge that’s required — that is not something the typical IT professional, at this point in time, has.”

Because of this, CompTIA and AIM Global are looking into starting a certification program that will train up-and-coming RFID integrators. But that program is still in the planning stages and may not produce graduates until late 2005 or early 2006.

In the meantime, companies looking at large-scale projects may find themselves on a waiting list as the handful of qualified RFID integrators meet existing obligations. Even the Big Four system integrators, who are involved with CompTIA and AIM in the planning of the certification program, don’t have a particularly deep pool of knowledge in this area, said Mullen.

But there is good news, said Hoffman, who has been working with RFID technology since the late 1970s.

Unlike bar codes 25 years ago, there is a knowledge base that has come out of that technology and can be applied, with some re-education, to RFID implementations. This should, in theory, make the RFID learning curve much steeper, i.e. quicker, than the one confronted by early adaptors of bar codes.

“At the time (of bar codes) there were very few people who were qualified, and by qualified I mean they had done installations, they had gotten the scars from the battles fought, and knew what to watch out for and basically how to migrate through the minefield with a minimum number of casualties,” he said.

These same bar code integrators today can build on this experience, if they choose, and move into the RFID space. Today, however, there are only a handful of qualified RFID integrators capable of handling installations that require more than just reading passive tags, said Sommer. To meet demand, this number has to expand by a factor of ten.