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RFID Needs Big Data Tools

Radio tags generate vast quantities of information, but enterprises need to find ways to ingest, analyze, and archive that data.

The global growth of radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices presents both an opportunity and a challenge for industries that use the object-tagging technology. The real-time data generated by RFID tags simplifies inventory management and delivers significant cost savings, but organizations must find effective ways to manage the information.

An infographic by RFID hardware vendor ThingMagic, a division of GPS positioning provider Trimble, nicely illustrates this trend. As an integral part of the Internet of Things--a term that refers to billions of global devices, independent of human control, exchanging information via the Net--RFID and related technologies such as GPS and NFC can spur new applications in retail, healthcare, manufacturing, and inventory management.

"By its nature, RFID is generating large quantities of data, given its ability to read a great number of tagged items in a very short period of time," said ThingMagic director of marketing Ken Lynch in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

[ Is mobile connectivity the next big frontier for big data? See M2M: Big Data Opportunity For Mobile Operators. ]

The benefits of RFID are real, but the technology also poses problem for organizations. For instance, many retailers that adopt RFID for inventory management must find ways to ingest, analyze, and archive huge volumes of new data. On the plus side, RFID tags also help provide retailers with a more accurate inventory count, which helps minimize lost sales due to out-of-stock items.

According to IDC retail analyst Leslie Hand, RFID technology improves inventory accuracy by up to 30 percent, and eliminates up to 50 percent of out-of-stock problems. "The bottom line is RFID enables leaner store inventories, without sacrificing lost sales," wrote Hand in a recent blog post.

Healthcare is another sector where RFID-generated data can improve efficiency and cut costs. The Greenville Hospital System in South Carolina, for instance, is using RFID to prevent the loss of costly surgical equipment.

"They were losing laser scalpels that were used in surgical procedures," said Lynch. "And they were losing them because those scalpels were left on the operating room table, and then gathered up in the soiled linens, which were discarded down a laundry chute."

The solution was to place RFID-enabled loss-prevention devices in front of the laundry chutes.

"They tagged the laser scalpels and found that a fair amount of these scalpels were being wrapped up in the linens and discarded down the chute," Lynch said. But data from RFID real-time alerting systems made it possible for hospital workers to retrieve the scalpels before they were destroyed.

ThingMagic is working with parent company Trimble to combine RFID and GPS technologies to enable new identification and location services.

"You're already starting to see the convergence of those two technologies hit the transportation and logistics market, where customers are looking to apply GPS technology to understand where their vehicles are for fleet management," Lynch said.

Big data will certainly play a key role in RFID's future, as industries look for complete data management solutions--not just piecemeal products--to solve their problems.

"Our customers are demanding more of a solution. We see a growing need to offer some type of complimentary database or way of collecting and parsing RFID data," said Lynch, who added that ThingMagic doesn't offer such a product today.

These solutions are integral to the success of RFID providers. ThingMagic has many competitors, including Sirit in the embedded module space, and Motorola and Impinj in the finished RFID reader market.

Said Lynch, "Customers have been challenged historically when they look at acquiring and deploying RFID technologies. They typically had to go to a tag vendor for tags, a reader vendor for readers, and then find an integrator to pull everything together. But an approach we're taking is to offer more of a solution that not only addresses what's needed up front, but what's needed at the back end too."

See the future of business technology at Interop New York, Oct. 1-5. It's the best place to learn about next-generation technologies including cloud computing, BYOD, big data, and virtualization.

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