Guest Column: RFID in 2006 – A Story of Extremes

As we enter 2007, many radio frequency identification (RFID) suppliers are licking their wounds, while for others, RFID business is booming. As IDTechEx interview solution providers and users across the RFID industry for the new report "RFID Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2007-2017" to be released in January, Raghu Das, CEO, summarizes some of the findings.

The Volumes that Never Came

At the beginning of 2006, there was much optimism in the retail mandate sector. RFID tag production capacities had been put in place and Gen 2 was delivering superior performance than previous versions. However, arguably the pallet/case market for RFID tags became the nearest thing to a black hole in the RFID universe in 2006, thanks to reluctant mandated customers, technical problems and pricing for volumes that never came despite retailers reporting excellent paybacks.

Speaking to many consumer goods manufacturers, IDTechEx has found considerable foot dragging resulting in pallet/case tag purchases being as little as 250-300 million tags in 2006 at the heavily-loss-making price of around 10 to 15 cents each. Readers are also being sold at a heavy loss.

Some participants have seen benefits. Procter and Gamble found that tagging display cases for Wal-Mart with shared information led to a sales increase 19 percent of Fusion blades caused by more timely arrival at shelf. Hanna Candle Co. found 90 pallets worth $12.6 million went missing but were found with the RFID, reducing a knock on effect for ordering. However, these benefits are not necessarily paybacks, and companies are not saying they are sustainable.

These sums of money are among the smallest of any RFID sector, less than esoteric niches like one company tagging random samples of mail to assess performance or one company earns from tagging cows. The point is that the mail tags are $10 or more and the cow tags are $2. Both of those companies have around $50 million of probably profitable sales. One could go on and on with examples like this.

RFID hardware suppliers that had prioritized the retail sector started to look elsewhere, though none left the sector altogether because they know there will be a winner one day and most have strong backing. They are playing "last man standing." There is oversupply, although some system integrators make money.

Basically, the RFID tagging of pallets and cases for major Western retailers of under 400 million pallets and cases over two years has already improved their margins by up to $100 million. This was provided at a loss of about $100 million by the consumer goods companies that supply them. In addition, the RFID suppliers to these consumer goods companies also lost about $100 million in the exercise. In the case of the RFID suppliers, that money came from investors and parent companies. It was certainly not predicted that those investments in RFID companies would, in effect, flow rapidly to the large retailers. System integrators are faring better, with some even claiming to make money installing pallet/case RFID infrastructure at consumer product goods (CPG) companies and retailers. At least with anti-theft tags earlier mandated by retailers, the tag and system suppliers to the mandated CPG companies — notably Sensormatic (now in Tyco-ADT) and Checkpoint Systems — stayed profitable because they did not price for volumes that never came. However, anti-theft tags did, and still do, cost the CPG companies heavily for no return, and pallet/case RFID is history repeating itself.

Although IDTechEx forecast that eventually retail will be the biggest market by far for RFID, consumer goods companies are yet to see sustainable paybacks. The real opportunity for them is with item-level tagging. Retail mandates asked for their top suppliers to tag the pallets and cases of the highest-volume products they sell. The highest-volume products tend to be those which are lower value and lower margin, and therefore it comes as no surprise that most consumer goods suppliers don't get a payback. For RFID suppliers, item-level tagging for retailers is a better business where high-value products are tagged first, such as Marks & Spencer apparel, BGN books or Best Buy video games. However, it is vulnerable to rapid design change. Like anti-theft tags, there are three incompatible options here: Near Field UHF (ultra-high frequency), Far Field UHF and HF (high frequency).

Hot Countries for RFID

IDTechEx keeps a close eye on which countries are eagerly adopting RFID and which are not. Our sources include intensive traveling, conferences, literature searches and our IDTechEx RFID Knowledgebase of over 2400 case studies covering over 2600 organizations and 91 countries. The results are rather surprising.

Firstly, the United States is the greatest adopter, with by far the largest number of cases of RFID in action and orders that are often the world's largest by value. It has even pulled ahead in the last year, with over 840 recorded projects. More surprising is the UK holding second place by number of cases, though not the money spent, where China has more claim to fame and Korea and Japan are strong rivals.

The top 10 countries by number of case studies did not look like this only one year ago. China and Korea have jumped up a notch and, remarkably, Australia has jumped from number 10 to number seven. When we saw the unusual activity in Australia we focused research onto the region for a new report, "RFID in Australasia 2007-2017," and we reveal some of the results here. New Zealand is a follower, with the exception of the work of Fonterra, the world's largest milk cooperative.

What is going on in Australia? The rapid advance of Australia in RFID is on a broad front, from books in libraries to tagging of humans in hospitals, but one could say that about many countries. What sets Australia apart from most of its peers are aspects such as the legal requirement to tag cattle and racehorses, and the trials and rollouts of tagging fish, tomatoes and other foods by its vibrant food industry. Australia will not stop there. It is likely to introduce legislation to tag all four-legged livestock ahead of most other countries. With the major trading blocs finding reasons to protect their food industries, external suppliers such as Australia, with the world's largest population of sheep, must be beyond suspicion. RFID is a part of that.

RFID Sectors Taking Off

Other sectors of the RFID business are booming. Andrew Price, RFID manager at IATA, the airline trade association, enthuses: "In the next few years the air industry will be tagging an ever higher proportion of its two billion bags yearly, and it will use RFID in other new applications as well." This is a global phenomenon, not least in government applications. Dr Jimmy Li, deputy director of the Initiative Office for Government RFID Applications at the Ministry of Economic Affairs Taiwan and Senior Advisor of the Institute for Information Industry in Taiwan, says, "Government applications of RFID are now growing rapidly. We started five RFID projects in the government area this year and there are more to come next year."

Steve Georgevitch, Total Asset Visibility program manager of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, says, "The aerospace and defense industries are on a rapid RFID adoption path with substantial benefits anticipated in the next several years."

Martin Capper, president, Mark IV IVHS Division, says, "Mark IV sees RFID as an explosive market, particularly in the Transportation segment, with the evolution from the existing electronic payment systems to new applications delivering safety and mobility for both individuals and commercial traffic. The emergence of DSRC at 5.9GHz will create the next paradigm shift in surface transportation."

There are also new markets opening up beyond transport. Dr Chang-Hun Lee of the National Information Society Agency, Korea says, "Ubiquitous Sensor Networks will be a huge RFID market in a few years."

RFID tagging of livestock is driven by ever-wider legislation. For example, the European Community and New Zealand join the party in 2008-2010, creating a market for tagging sheep, goats, pigs and cows, the total demand for these two regions being over 150 million tags yearly at about $2 each in 2010 from almost none today. Add a big demand for systems to that figure. The largest bookseller in the Netherlands, BGN, is ordering several million tags yearly for its new scheme, and its payback is so compelling that others will rapidly follow.

RFID Cards: Biggest Market by Value and Growing

When it comes to the biggest RFID market — contactless smart cards — Don Davis, Editor of Card Technology says, "Big players are making major bets on contactless and forcing competitors to catch up. They are issuing large numbers of contactless cards and fobs and, in Japan, adding contactless functionality to millions of mobile phones, giving many consumers the chance to pay with a wave."

Contactless cards are a huge success, and contactless ticket sales are also taking off exponentially. The China National ID card and system is the biggest RFID rollout but an even larger budget of at least $15 billion is planned for the UK National ID card. Then there is continued growth in secure access applications and the start of the process of converting over three billion financial cards from Visa, MasterCard, American Express and JCB to RFID. In the United States alone, 150,000 readers have just been installed for these financial cards; but that is only the beginning. RFID cards and tickets and RFID-enabled mobile phones (Near Field Communication) increasingly provide payments, ticketing and secure access. All three devices are seeing rapid growth.

The China National ID scheme will peak at a huge 300 million USD$2.45 cards delivered in 2007. Card readers valued at $1.2 billion are being ordered to go with them. The global market for RFID cards and systems will pass $3 billion in 2008. The figures, which are fully analyzed together with tickets and RFID phones, are in the new IDTechEx report, "Contactless Smart Cards and Near Field Communication 2007-2017."

IDTechEx forecasts that sales of RFID tickets will rocket from 100 million in 2007 to 450 million in 2010. Others are even more bullish in their forecasts. Certainly, the national railway system in China uses three billion tickets yearly, so its recent order for hundreds of millions of RFID tickets is only a beginning.

About the Author: Raghu Das MA (Cantab) is CEO/MD of IDTechEx. He has a BA Natural Sciences degree from Cambridge University, where he studied physics. He has been closely involved with the development of RFID and printed electronics for over six years, carrying out consultancy in Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East. He has lectured on RFID, smart packaging and printed/organic electronics at over 200 events and conferences around the world and is author of several IDTechEx publications.

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