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The race for digital tracking standards

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-02-17

RFID — or radio-frequency identification — lies at the heart of the global race to develop a world standard in tagging and tracking products on their journey from the factory to the consumer.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology stores data that can be retrieved remotely. Companies use it to monitor a product's journey from the factory to the consumer.

Laurent Noël, director of the RFID 2007 fair in Paris, says the show is now well established but still growing, with the third show attracting 50% more visitors and stands than the previous year's. "That makes about 3,500 visitors and 70 companies," he said.

Most of the companies at the fair were European. The technology, first developed in the USA, is now gaining ground in Europe.

"The US today is undeniably the leader of RFID technology," said Stefan Barbu, account and business development manager at NXP Semiconductors, "but Western Europe, and France especially, is playing a very important role in setting up large RFID projects."

Noël confirms a growing interest in RFID worldwide. "We are seeing more companies coming up with projects and development ideas linked to what RFID technology can do," he said.

The technology is based on an integrated circuit  — a memory chip — linked to an antenna.

Marc de Freminville of IBM said: "RFID technology has the advantage that it can automate quite tedious and time-consuming tasks such as inventory checking, keeping track of deliveries and ensuring they've been carried out. And all without having to open a package. RFID's second advantage is that you really establish a picture of all the steps of the journey."

IBM has provided RFID solutions to Sernam, an international parcels company that is a part of the French state railway SNCF.

Sernam wanted to ensure the best traceability possible for its parcels, but delivering parcels to anywhere in the world requires an international standard, a kind of Big Brother for objects.

The battle for technological supremacy and to become the standard for RFID involves huge commercial interests.

François Deschamps of Hub Telecom said: "The person with most customers will have a head start. That's how the international standard will emerge. It'll be the biggest software companies with the most customers who'll dominate. They'll say to other companies: 'This customer is using this or that technology and you're not using it, so if you don't start using you'll find that you are being left out'."

The US army is one of the biggest customers for RFID technology.  The US is imposing its standards partly because of the Pentagon's huge logistical needs.

The French finance ministry raised the alarm about this in January 2005 in a report which said that all forms of digital identification technology, including RFID, was "a high stake in an economic war".

Bruno Julien of GS1, an organisation devoted to developing standards for logistics, said: "We help companies define a common standard which all companies and all their partners can use. It's a lot easier to have a standard way of reading a memory chip belonging to company A and company B rather than working out how to deal with the different standards and technologies that the two companies are using."

The question of standards is even more acute when it comes to RFID technology and the Internet. The only major server for the moment is in the USA, managed by the company Verisign, but the Europeans haven't had their last word.

"We are currently developing our own server here in France which would link to the US one, working alongside Verisign's," said Julien.

Speed is of the essence. Research is being carried out in Valence in southern France at a centre where no limit is put on eventual uses of RFID technology, such as in medicine.

Researchers and engineers in Valence, such as Christophe Chantepy, head of RFT LAB, are also working on standards. "We're now able to carry out most tests needed for RFID systems in terms of performance and standards, for the tags and for the readers," he said.

The competition is on. With the prospect of 50,000 billion objects to monitor, the Americans, Europeans and Asians will battle it out.

Date created : 2008-01-19