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 push RFID on 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.

Morris: What are the unique and most valuable [begin italics] potential [end italics] benefits of RFID?

Roberti: It’s a difficult question to answer because the realized benefits and potential future benefits are massive. RFID is an enabling technology, and it enables many different things, from tracking shipments through the supply chain to monitoring acid reflux. It’s like asking, back in 1999, what is the greatest potential benefit of the Internet. Who knew all the ways we would be using the Internet? So who knows how people will innovate with RFID? Some of the stuff I’ve seen has blown me away, such as using RFID to control a robotic prosthetic limb. No one imagined these things just a few years ago.

Morris: Having read and reviewed dozens of books about Big Data, including those by Tom Davenport, I am now convinced its issues are not IT issues; rather business issues. Your own thoughts about that?

Roberti: Big data is a big joke. It’s something the IT solution providers have been pushing. What they are talking about is data analytics. But in most cases the data you are analyzing is bad. Inventory accuracy in a typical retail store is 65 percent. So if you are analyzing that data, you aren’t getting much useful information. Supply chain data is equally bad, which is why I started investigating RFID to begin with.

RFID will deliver big data because it will allow you to collect massive amounts of information about what’s happening in your operations. You will be able to analyze that and come up with useful information and key performance indicators. This will become obvious to companies as they start to deploy RFID and get information they can analyze and use.

Morris: In several books but mostly in magazine articles (especially in your Journal), it seems — at least to me — that many RFID systems fail or fall far short of expectations because they are under-utilized. What do you think?

Roberti: I would disagree. Most RFID systems deliver more than was originally expected because companies discover new ways to use the technology. And systems often expand continuously to add more and more value. I think it is true that no company has come close to fully leveraging what RFID can do. For example, some manufacturers are tracking parts bins, some are tracking tools, others work-in-process, but only Airbus is doing all of these things.

Morris: In your opinion, what do the most successful RFID systems share in common?

Roberti: That’s a difficult question because applications are so diverse, but I think they start with a clear vision and discipline. It’s easy to deploy the technology haphazardly as people ask for more things to be tracked. The best deployments are led by people who understand what their company’s goals are and what its strategy is and use RFID to support and enhance the strategy and to achieve the goals.

Morris: What are the unique challenges for an organization – one that does business in several dozen foreign countries – when designing, installing, and then maintaining an RFID system?

Roberti: There really are no major challenges related to having operations in different countries. The technology is slightly different in that it has to be certified by different regulators, but it works much the same way. There are cultural differences in how you implement change, but this is a management issue companies have dealt with before.

Morris: To what extent does an RFID system pose unique leadership challenges?

Roberti: Great question. The biggest leadership challenge is accepting that radical change for the better is possible. Some people have become disillusioned with all technology because promises haven’t been kept and goals haven’t been met in the past. With RFID, you often get more benefit than you can imagine, so a leader has to be cvonvinced that new things really are possible and then imagine how their organization can change.

I’ll give you one quick example. A retailer did an in-store pilot and saw a 20 percent increase in sales due to better on-shelf availability. Management canceled the project and refused to provide additional funding because it believed 20 percent uplift wasn’t possible. Mindboggling.

Another challenge is that RFID can impact every corner of a company. A manufacturer, for example, can use RFID to improve supply chain, warehousing and manufacturing operations, as well as marketing and after sales support. So a leader has to bring these pieces together to achieve an integrated success. You don’t want separate systems in each area. It is doable, but it takes special leaders to make it happen.

Morris: In your opinion, what will be the single greatest area of opportunity for RFID technologies in (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Please explain.

Roberti: Retail apparel will be the first sector of the global economy to embrace RFID on a large scale, but it is not necessarily the greatest opportunity. There are opportunities in every industry. Some of these applications will save lives. Others will save the environment, and still others will save billions of dollars. It’s sort of like asking, in 1999, what the great opportunity for the Internet is. The whole point is these are enabling technologies and they enable many great things. It’s quite possible we have not yet discovered the greatest opportunity.

Morris: Of all the great business leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Roberti: Steve Jobs, without a doubt. I have been an Apple user since the mid-1990s. Like Jobs, I have a good sense of design and believe design is especially important. And like Jobs, I despise people who think business can be reduced down to a bunch of surveys that tell you what products to make and accountants to tell you how you can make them profitably. Jobs had passion and a love of what he was doing. I feel the same way, so I would love to have had the chance to meet him.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO is now determined to install an RFID system. Where to begin?

Roberti: Start with a strategy. Think to yourself, what would my company look like if we could identify, track and manage everything we own and measure everything we do? How would that information help us do business more effectively and efficiently? Ask how your company could use that capability and that data to improve its position in the marketplace? In other words, start with the end game – with a vision for where you are going or would like to get to.

When you’re done that thought exercise, you can prioritize projects and start building a truly real-time company with near-perfect visibility step by step. Each project can deliver a return on investment and take you a step closer to that next-generation company you want to become. Once you’ve prioritized, it’s easy to choose the right type of RFID, deploy small projects and then expand in an intelligent way. The challenge is having the vision of what it means to have near-perfect visibility, since no one has ever had it before.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, to what extent would a solid understanding of RFID be of substantial benefit to the owner/CEO of a small company? Please explain.

Roberti: It really depends on the type of company. If you deal with a lot of stuff – pallets, cases, tools, jigs, molds, etc. – then RFID can help you to better track and make these things. But RFID might also help you make your product smarter, or enable you to serve your customers better. So knowing about all the types of RFID applications and being willing to consider different ones, new ones, can enable the small business owner to do some innovative things that could be transformative. It could be a very cool customer interaction application that gets young shoppers into stores or something that enhances your product, interacts with the new Apple Watch, or provides sensor data on the condition of something.

Morris: For those unfamiliar with various activities sponsored by the Journal, including the annual RFID Journal LIVE! Conference next April in San Diego, please provide some information about these activities. Who participates? On what do programs focus? How do these activities contribute to an increased understanding of RFID among business leaders in an increasingly more dynamic global marketplace?

Roberti: RFID Journal hosts the largest RFID convention and exhibition in the world, RFID Journal LIVE! ( We have more than 100 educational sessions over three days. There are tracks focused on retail, manufacturing, aerospace and defense, health care and pharmaceuticals, and logistics. Other tracks focus on innovation, technology and infrastructure, and visibility and traceability.

There are also pre-conference seminars, post-conference workshops and co-located events. The exhibit hall features more than 200 exhibitors from 20 countries, with solutions for many different applications in just about every industry.

We call the event RFID Journal LIVE! because we really bring our stories to life. We have end users come and talk about their deployments. This enables attendees to hear objective case studies, rather than hype, and learn how they can benefit from using the technology.

We also run an event in Brazil, one in Europe ,and an annual event focused on health care, which travels to different cities in the United States each year. Our goal is to help companies learn how to deploy the technology to improve their operations and these events can advance a person’s knowledge very quickly. They are very popular with executives trying to learn how to leverage RFID.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Roberti: I was hoping you’d ask what is the biggest thing I’ve learned since launching my own business. Answer: How many businesses don’t do what is in their own interest or don’t even know what their own interest is?

We are always being told by the business press and news media that companies do what is smart and logical because they have a profit motive. I’ve seen companies where one division undermines another, where managers make decisions based on ego, where CEOs sell divisions that have great potential value because they either don’t see the value or don’t care about the long-term future of the company.

Why would CEO with billions in cash lying around not investigate new technologies? I can only surmise that they are eager to protect their bonuses and don’t want to risk doing anything that could possibly go wrong and jeopardize that. That’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a professional manager. An entrepreneur is willing to take risks.

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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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