RFID stands for radio frequency identification, a new method of tagging shipments in ways that make bar-code scanning old-fashioned. Brighton-based Lowry Computer Products Inc., which has made bar-coding systems its mainstay, now sees a bright future in RFID.
In addition to its bar-code technology, Lowry Computer is now offering the RFID systems to major military and retail customers. Given simultaneous pushes by Wal-Mart and the military toward radio-wave technology, the days of bar codes may be numbered.
"I think you're going to see RFID become as ubiquitous as bar codes," said Michael Lowry, president and CEO of Lowry Computer.
After tinkering with RFID for about a decade, the company now is working with 30 different customers on RFID initiatives. It's still a small portion compared to its 3,500 bar-code customers, but it's growing rapidly.
"I used to think a label was just a label," Lowry said.
In fact, every RFID label is made of two main parts: the microchip and the antenna. The microchip contains all the information about a shipment's history - where it has been, how to handle it, its age, how to stock it and other details. The copper wire antenna beams a signal with that information to nearby receivers.
In supply chain logistics, Lowry's bar-coded labels are used from the early packaging stages to the time a shipment arrives at a retailer. But Lowry said RFID allows that process to run much more smoothly. Fixed scanners at regional distribution centers and at the retail stores themselves can pick up signals from RFID tags, helping to alleviate a bottleneck of trucks at distribution centers and stores.
Lowry's automation systems that create the RFID labels, use various chips made by a range of suppliers, including some made by Texas Instruments Inc.
The company is focused on makers of retail consumer goods, including Procter & Gamble and General Mills, but also has an eye on electronics, auto supplies and military and aerospace materials.
Tracking anything from casino chips to frozen turkeys, technology companies are taking baby steps to implement RFID. But the biggest impetus for adoption of RFID is Wal-Mart. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart is pressing its suppliers to change to an RFID mode in the next few years.
Beyond managing supply chains, there are too many possible applications for RFID technology to count. Many uses - including smart toll booths that scan passing vehicles with paid-toll tags, and systems to keep luggage from being lost in transit - are already being tested in various parts of the country.
But with all of those possible uses, and because of the small size of RFID chips, some advocates are concerned about the technology's impact on privacy. Lowry, a board member of the Automatic Identification Manufacturers Association, said that group is investigating ways to prevent breeches in privacy and security.
For now, the company is making tags only for large containers and palettes. Eventually, RFID producers will design the tags to track individual products. By that time, Lowry expects stronger privacy standards will be in place.
"Our industry is very cognizant of that issue and very respectful of those issues," he said.
In the meantime, Lowry Computer is in growth mode. The company recently completed a $2 million renovation at its manufacturing facility in White Bear Lake, Minn., just outside Minneapolis. Next month, the firm plans to expand into another 10,000 square feet in the building it currently leases in Brighton, and hopes to establish an RFID product development center to explore new uses for the technology.
The company employs 225 workers, with a third in Michigan, a third in Minnesota and another third in outside sales and service technician positions. The company is looking into hiring additional local engineers and technical staff, Lowry said, and plans to remain headquartered in Brighton.
The 30-year-old privately held company is reeling in between $50 million and $60 million in annual revenues, and grew during the 1990s with four acquisitions, Lowry said.