ID Tags Make Products 'Talk'
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
First it was the UPC bar code. Then came self-checkout. Next up? Radio transmitter tags.
One day, those cereal boxes and soda cans --- and everything else on the shelves --- could be equipped with tiny radio tags that "talk" to their makers from the time they roll off the factory line.
Take your typical futuristic Old Spice deodorant, for example.
"Hey, I just pulled out of the Procter & Gamble plant in Greensboro, N.C., and I'm on my way to the Kroger on Ponce de Leon Ave. in Atlanta," Old Spice stick, serial No. 1122334455, might say. "Me again. Just checked in at the loading dock and heading to the health and beauty section."
That's where you enter the conversation, plucking Old Spice off the shelf and tossing it in the cart full of similarly chatty products, all reporting back to the stock room. "Pssst. Just left aisle 13, third shelf down. Better order another one to take my place."
Sound far-fetched, or silly? Serious bucks are riding on the "smart tag," a thin plastic strip embedded with computer chips and radio transmitters.
If developers can make the tags cheaply enough to mass-produce, they might eventually replace the bar code in 10 to 15 years, experts predict.
The technology is called "radio frequency identification," or RFID. The tags consist of silicon chips the size of a grain of sand that act like the factory version of DNA: Each product is assigned a serial number and a full set of vital statistics such as price, size, color, where it was made and when it was shipped.
An antenna in the tag transmits the data --- and its exact whereabouts --- to wireless receivers.
"Think of it as a souped-up bar code," said Dan White, who is known as the "technical evangelist" for RFID at NCR Corp. He works at the company's research center in Duluth.
Combine smart tags with "smart shelves" equipped with RFID readers, and retailers will know the moment a can of beans leaves the shelf.
In the dairy section, a programmed gallon of milk might automatically drop in price as it gets closer to the expiration date.
The technology could even be used to fight shoplifting. Take five packs of high-priced razor blades off a shelf, and the chips might alert a security officer to make sure they go through the check-out lane.
"This is the next 50 years of computing," said Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where scientists have been developing the next generation of the UPC, or Universal Product Code, since 1999.
Dubbed the Electronic Product Code, the souped-up successor has been designed to be part of a network of computers that can instantly identify any object anywhere.
"We're moving into an automatic sensor age," Ashton said. RFID technology dates to World War II, when the government used transponders to identify enemy planes.
Advanced RFID powers the Speedpass wireless payment option at Exxon and Mobil gas stations in Georgia. Speedpass users pay by waving a small encoded "key fob" at the pump without digging out a debit or credit card.
Libraries are looking at RFID tags to keep an eye on books, and Delta Air Lines and some airports are testing the tags to track luggage.
Retailers want to use RFID to get a better picture of what and how much inventory they have. Even with current automation, the movement and tracking of goods is labor-intensive and ripe for human error. The typical pallet of products is manually scanned and tallied several times between the factory and the store.
Unlike bar codes, RFID tags don't need to be scanned manually. Sensors can read hundreds of items at once.
"Ultimately, we'll be tagging every item in the universe," said Eric Peters, senior vice president of products and strategy at Atlanta-based Manhattan Associates, a software company. "But that's several years out there, because the tags are still too expensive."
Now at 30 cents apiece and up, tags would have to drop below a penny before they would be affixed to everything in a store, manufacturers and retailers say. Privacy concerns
There are other hurdles. Other wireless signals can interfere. So can metal and liquids, meaning bottles of soda and cans of coffee aren't the best candidates for radio tags.
The technology also has caught flak from privacy advocates worried that radio chips could turn into "spy chips" once people buy a tagged product. Researchers say the tags could be deactivated before consumers leave the store. The pressure is on to work out the kinks. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, recently ordered its top 100 suppliers to attach RFID chips to cases and pallets of products by 2005. Consumer heavyweights ranging from Gillette to Coca-Cola also are ramping up for RFID.
Supermarkets and stores will roll out the technology in warehouses and stockrooms first, but researchers are already dreaming up greater possibilities.
If every item is tagged, shoppers could bag groceries as they shop, then pass through an RFID reader that would ring up their purchases instantly. NCR is tinkering with a scanning device at the Duluth lab. The prototype "RFID portal" not only reads through plastic bags, it also can read through wallets, zapping the total purchase out of an RFID credit card.
"We may get to a point where we never have to interact with a scanner or a cash register," said Chris Herwig, director of technology at NCR's retail solutions division.
NCR already has developed a hybrid scanner that will read both bar codes and electronic product codes. "It's going to be awhile before these tags are everywhere, but the transition period is already beginning," Herwig said.
"Starting out with cases and cartons makes sense today, but we're going to start to see [tags] on higher-priced items such as DVDs and designer clothing within the next year or so."
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