RFID - An Essay

Sangtae Kim, Donald W. Feddersen Distinguished Professor
Schools of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering
Purdue University

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology is changing the world. History has shown that it is the nature of certain key technological inventions to change profoundly the world around them far beyond the immediate impact of the invention itself. At the New York Crystal Palace in 1854, Elisha Graves Otis stood on an elevator platform while his assistant cut the hoisting cable. Much to the crowd's amazement, the elevator fell only a few inches, thanks to Otis' safety brake mechanism. The immediate impact was clear: elevators were safe for vertical human travel and not were no longer machines relegated to lifting freight. But the obvious convenience of not climbing stairs paled in comparison to the profound impact on the urban skyline and the concentration of economic activity in the metropolises of the world. From architecture to structural mechanics, the safety brake transformed the agenda for research in the social and physical sciences. Here we propose that RFID is of comparable significance for the 21st Century, belonging in the pantheon of great and disruptive inventions right beside the safety elevator, internal combustion engine and gene splicing.

This much we know: at the heart of the matter, RFID is simply the electronic bar code. By the diffraction of radio waves in place of the line-of-sight of a laser beam, RFID enables “automatic identification” by taking the human, manual scanning step out of the loop. But this is precisely the “no more stair climbing” conclusion from Otis’ elevator invention. Our vision of a greater societal impact of the arrival of ultra low cost RFID comes from its role as the ubiquitous and golden link between the physical and cyber worlds, or to stretch our metaphor, as the elevator linking the physical and cyber planes of human endeavor.

The stunning successes of google and other search engines at the start of the 21st Century provides insights on the value placed on the ability to locate rapidly digital objects scattered in a vast cyber universe. When this paradigm is extended beyond the cyber world to physical objects, from personal artifacts to assets of a multi-national corporation to supplier-vendor transactions, we can only begin to imagine the implications for the transformation of human activity. For long-range researchers and think tanks, the research agenda across many fields, but most notably industrial and systems engineering, will be revitalized as we contemplate new vistas in operations research and optimization.

As an example, consider Friedman’s “flat world” paradigm in the post-IT world. With ubiquitous RFID, with apologies to Einstein’s general relativity, that the world is indeed mostly flat, just as space time is flat (light travels in a straight line) almost everywhere except near the gravitational pull from a nearby massive object. Similarly, in Friedman’s flat world, mass concentrations of key economic advantages create “economic curvature” and these are readily visible in the geopolitical landscape by their strong gravitational pull that overcomes the dispersive effects of a flat world. Historically, these advantages were topographical in nature, e.g., tradeposts located at the junctions of major rivers and canals and sheltered harbors on the seacoast. The advent of the railroad created new junctions and new centers of economic activity (our state capital, Indianapolis, is not at the junction of major rivers) illustrating the role of disruptive technologies in the induction of economic curvature and reshaping economic space time.

But back to RFID and economic curvature in a flat world: the emergence of highly efficient supply chains (transportation, distribution and logistics) and its close coupling with agile manufacturing, in an affluent consumer-driven society that values individual choices (customization) and immediate gratification (rapid delivery from point of sale), will shift economic activity to the epicenter of the population as all other factors except transit times recede as the tie-breaker. To our great fortune, we happen to be the science and technology university located at this epicenter (a day’s drive by delivery truck for 70% of the U.S. population) and thus our strong motivation for thinking through the myriad and transformative implications of RFID.

It is sometimes stated that vision without execution or implementation is hallucination. To that end, our research program in RFID priorities foundational steps that are foremost in achieving the vision of ubiquitous RFID. First and foremost, RFID requires new constructs in cyberinfrastructure (Information Technology) and the power of data analytics. RFID is an infrastructure play, and like all other infrastructure and networks, the value achieved is nonlinear as we transition from partial to complete infrastructure. And as with all data infrastructure, questions arise re tradeoffs between privacy/confidentiality vs. convenience – and for the most paranoid elements of society, RFID is the ultimate spy chip for an Orwellian “big brother” society. Our current research projects at Purdue are aligned with these priorities and create new methods for analysis and explore new interfaces between the physical sciences; social, behavior and economic sciences; and cyberinfrastructure – with the goal of providing directions that maximize societal benefits while mitigating potential malignant exploitation and pitfalls.



Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
Schools of Engineering,

office: 102 Mechanical Engineering
e-mail: kim55@purdue.edu