Widespread success kills RFID nickel tag myth

by Andy Kowl

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Are there 5¢ tags yet?” . . .

Recently an executive from a book binding plant asked me about that Unicorn of RFID, “the nickel tag.” Like so many others, he had “learned” from the early analysts and pundits that until RFID tags cost five cents or less, RFID will remain a pipe dream.

“If I could save you $250,000 next year, what would you care how much the tags cost?” is my standard response.

This is a real question. Some of the RFID tags with the biggest payback might cost $200. Would you pay $200 to save $500? Probably not. How about if it saved you $5,000? $50,000? There must be a number.

Out-of-date information rules

I am not saying I know how much you can save, but isn’t that a number you should know? Since part of my job is to talk to people about RFID, I get a pretty interesting mix of reactions.

There is no doubt the majority of generally smart and knowledgeable business executives, across all industries, know virtually nothing of the success that RFID has played a part in bringing thousands of users. [For the definitive word on this glaring knowledge gap, I will unabashedly report my Walmart RFID Litmus Test has remained 100% accurate.]

As I’ve had the pleasure recently to review a treasure trove of RFID success stories, I realized another reason RFID’s success has been obscured results from the diversity of success stories there are. It is so much harder to define this technology when it helps ski slopes, factories, shipyards, building mangers, retailers, hospitals and more. You can’t really fit that into a story. I had to stop myself from listing about twenty more successful user-types off the top of my head just now. How is USA Today going to fit that story into their business section?

Show me the money

RFID is not about pie-in-the-sky possibilities or technological wishful thinking. I am going to share a few short excerpts today, and over the next few weeks, of this huge range of successful user case studies I reviewed while working on the 2009 edition of Leading RFID Innovators.

The perfect place to start this value tour is Cruz Thru Express Carwash, a small chain with five stylized, California-retro locations in Bakersfield, California. One or two look downright Art Deco. What possible use would this small company have for RFID?

Their website answers that question. “Our company is dedicated to improving our trade and providing better service and time-saving steps.” They state out front their goal is better customer service. Who doesn’t like that?

With RFID they have found a key to business growth. “. . . our fastPass Memberships is the second reason for our success. Cruz Thru Express . . . pioneered the automated membership system and with our fastPass Members lane, you can save valuable time by not having to wait to be cashed out by our staff; if you’re an Unlimited Monthly Member, you simply pull into the Members Lane and the gate will open right up for you.”  www.cruzthrucarwash.com

Success never comes easy. In particular, Cruz Thru needed an adhesive label that could be read on glass without the foam standoff of other windshield tag designs. Raymond Roselle, one of the founding partners, worked with RFID label innovators Metalcraft, a group of dedicated innovators based in Mason City, Iowa.

Metalcraft came up with a construction which encapsulated the inlay between thin layers of polypropylene, adding a bar code and human readable information to one side and a windshield-compatible adhesive to the other. The encapsulation process protected the inlay and reduced the effects of electrostatic discharge, while the windshield-compatible adhesive protects against the harmful UV rays. Cruz Thru Express is planning on riding RFID customer service value as a cornerstone of their growth plan.

Crime and punishment

A couple hundred miles up the coast, the Santa Clara Crime Lab presents the perfect counterpoint to the car was RFID application. An August, 2007, article on a website hosted by the weekly newspaper Metro Silicon Valley, it was reported the Crime Lab had a 600 case backlog and case turn-arounds were typically 35 days.

The Lab receives more than 35,000 pieces of evidence a year, so those slow processing time put a serious dent in the wheels of justice. Now, with the help of Alien Technology, they are in the first stages of utilizing RFID tags to track and secure evidence under its control. The RFID process promises significantly reduced investigation turnaround times, increased accuracy in locating and retaining items, and overall increased confidence in the system.

But as important, or perhaps even more important, are what Victor Vega, interim Alien Marketing VP, sees as “tremendous opportunities to expand” applications. One vision is of an end-to-end tracking system which starts at the collection of content, in this case evidence at a crime scene, and finishes at a post-investigation archive. In between are a host of stops at which security, accountability and trackability are all crucial to the task.

In this case pennies will, indeed, buy the Alien tags necessary to make Santa Clara happy about their reduced case backlog. But the point is not the pennies, the point is the investment was worth every one of them.