Mark Roberti on Big Data and RFID: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


RobertiMark Roberti has reported on business for major publications worldwide since 1985. In 2002, he launched RFID Journal on the Web as an independent source of news and information for business and IT executives looking to tap RFID’s enormous potential. He is widely regarded as a thought leader in the RFID industry. Previously, he was managing editor at Information Week, then owned by CMP Media, which has since become four separate companies. Before that, he was a reporter at Asiaweek, I covering political and business in Hong Kong. He also was an editor at Asian Finance. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Hofstra University.

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Morris: When and why did you first become interested in RFID?

Roberti: I first heard about RFID while researching a story on bad data. I was sitting next to a guy at a conference during lunch. We got to talking, and I explained that I was working on a story about bad data being put into supply chain software, which leads to bad forecasts, and I was looking for new technologies that could solve the problem. He said: “You should look into RFID.” I didn’t know what it was, hadn’t heard the term.

I started doing some research and found something called the Auto-ID Center at MIT. It was developing low-cost RFID transponders that could be put on virtually everything. Kevin Ashton called it the “Internet of Things.” It made so much sense to me, and with big companies such as Walmart and Proctor & Gamble behind the effort, I knew it would happen. When the Industry Standard, the magazine I was working for at the time, went bankrupt, I decided to start my own company. My startup capital was $500.

Morris: Why did you decide to launch RFID Journal after being a journalist for 20 years?

Roberti: Mainly because the publications I worked for hired low-level kids out of college who could write a little bit but knew nothing about business and even less about technology. I was always trying to edit stuff that had no depth or intelligence to it. I decided I’d give it a shot at doing journalism my way – hiring great people and investing in high-quality editorial. If I had failed, I would have left journalism and looked for something else to do, but I think I’ve showed that you can succeed doing high-quality journalism on the Web.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has the Journal‘s original mission changed since then? Please explain.

Roberti: It hasn’t changed at all. Our mission has always been to help companies use RFID technology to improve the way they do business. I guess the one thing that has change is I do more individual consulting to help companies get started. That’s only because RFID companies don’t do a good job of marketing their solutons.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about RFID? What in fact is true?

Roberti: There are many. Some people believe it can magically do anything, such as give you a perfect inventory count with the push of a button. Others believe it doesn’t work at all. Perhaps the most common misperception is that it doesn’t work around water or metal. The truth is, RFID vendors have developed tags that can be welded to metal and embedded in metal. There are tags that can withstand temperatures of 300 degrees Celsius and be smashed by a sledgehammer and still read.

Morris: Based on what you have observed in recent years, what are the biggest mistakes made when getting involved with RFID?

Roberti: The biggest mistake has been not managing change. Often, companies want to force RFID into different areas of the business. Workers often feel threatened. As a result, they push back. I’ve heard stories of workers cutting the wires to readers, smashing antennas and doing other things to prevent the RFID system from working. In other cases, workers just don’t use the information the system provides because they haven’t been adequately trained. The successful deployments are the ones where those affected by the system are brought into the process early on and help design a system that will enable them to be more productive.

Morris: For those unfamiliar with the history of RFID, please provide a brief review of the most significant developments in its history.

Roberti: The technology traces its roots to the invention of radar during the Second World War. Because radar could see planes that could not be identified visually, the British risked shooting down their own planes returning from German bombing missions over Germany. To solve the problem, the British devised a means of sending a signal at a specific frequency to planes. That triggered a transponder on the British planes to respond, indicating they were friendly.

This system of sending a transmission and having a transponder respond is the basis of RFID. In the 1970s, Los Alamos National Labs developed a system for tracking animals with passive tags and trucks carrying nuclear materials with active tags (tags with a battery to enable them to transmit a signal). In the 1980s, some farmers used the animal tags to track cows, and the truck tracking solution was commercialized as a toll collection system.

In the 1990s, high frequency transponders took off for access control and automobile immobilizers. Things began to pick up with the introduction of passive UHF technology in the early 2000s. UHF offered a longer read range, so tags could be read going through a dock door portal. That led to a lot of innovation. The ratification of the ISO 18000-6C standard for passive UHF in 2006 opened the door to widespread adoption. Since then, all types of RFID technologies have been evolving rapidly.

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To read all of Part 2, please click here.

To read Part 1, please click here.

Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

RFID Journal link

rfidconnect link

AIM Global link

GS1 link

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