Making the most of RFID

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‘Why,’ one can’t help but ask Gunter Karjoth, IBM’s Zurich-based RFID research leader, ‘does your company think it worthwhile developing a clipped tag which allows consumers worried about privacy to rip the antennae off RFID item tags leaving the chips in situ?’

At first sight it seems a bizarre research challenge. The privacy issue is generally regarded as over-hyped and if consumers really don’t like tags they can be completely removed or killed at the checkout, so why leave a chip behind? The answer is interesting. Remove the antenna and you have a tag – of sorts – which can still be read at distances of about 2cm. Customers could wear a tagged item back to a store with no fears that the RFID label being read without their knowledge or, rather more significantly, they could still access the information for future use.

Karjoth’s examples of future use are thoughtprovoking. Tags in CDs, for example, could be scanned on a home RFID reader to help music buffs manage their collections or find individual items without searching through endless shelves. Similarly, tags in consumer electronics could retain warranty information that could be accessed as required with a proximity reader by service engineers.

Such scenarios may seem futuristic but link them with similar home-focussed developments and they start to make sense.

The Dutch Boekshandels Groep Nederland (BGN) book chain has been using RFID since April to improve stock management. Straightforward enough – a simple application that has dramatically improved goods receiving and stock records. Instead of staff skipping the early-morning goods-inward stock check as they turn their attention to the first customers of the day, they can now use a hand-held RFID reader to wand in the goods.

‘The stock records were always accurate in January after the annual stock take,’ says IT director Jan Vink, ‘but we knew that by December they would be less than 60 per cent reliable. Now we know exactly which titles are available in RFID stores.’

So far, two of the company’s stores have been converted to RFID stock management and the aim is to upgrade a further 16 during 2007. Simple enough. But use of RFID is not confined to better stock management. Like many booksellers BGN is facing fierce competition from internet rivals and Vink sees RFID as one component in its efforts to achieve competitive advantage in the online space.

The company is consolidating its various websites – around 13 in all linked to the long established brand names of its bookstores – into one site. In about a year’s time, when RFID is rolled out to all its stores, visitors to the website will be able to find which books are in stock in their local stores and reserve them online for collection later in the day as well as order titles for home delivery.

Additional planned website services include a digital book cupboard, where regular customers can keep records of all the books they buy as an online catalogue of their collections. Serious book buyers are frequently tidy-minded individuals who like to know what is in their libraries and where on their shelves a book is located.

Customer-centric benefits
Add the digital book cupboard idea to IBM’s clipped tag development and you can start to see significant and customer-centric benefits of RFID. Equip your best shoppers with a neat home RFID proximity reader, some suitable software and clipped tags in all titles and loyal customers have both a ready-made catalogue system for their libraries and an easy way of finding titles on their shelves. It also gives them an incentive to buy the bulk of their titles from your store as the competition may not be offering such services.

‘If you want to succeed in internet book sales you have to know your customers,’ adds Vink, so already on the BGN agenda is a loyalty card, so that shoppers and their book purchases can be linked and monitored for further marketing effort.

IBM and BGN are not the only RFID enthusiasts thinking laterally. Qinetiq, the UK’s former defence development agency now privatised, has been looking at various novel RFID ideas. The patent for one, the ability to ‘print’ RFID tags using clever inks on metal cans, has just been sold to a supplier of Coca-Cola drinks cans. Printing RFID tags rather than having to apply separate tags could be seminal in the development of low-cost tagging systems. The technology is still in its infancy but Coca-Cola’s supplier is looking to the longer term with a technology for future needs, whatever they may be.

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