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RFID Careers

Finding a career in radio-frequency identification.

By John Edwards

Wired Outlook

Organizations ranging from Wal-Mart to the U.S. Department of Defense are using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to track everything from canned goods to jet aircrafts to people. The worldwide RFID market exceeded $5.3 billion in 2008, according to Oyster Bay, New York-based ABI Research, and annual revenue growth is expected to continue growing over the next five years, reaching $9.8 billion by 2013.

The concept behind RFID is simple. On a basic level, RFID systems use a combination of radio-driven tags and readers to discover the identity of an object or person. In a typical "passive" RFID system, the tags store information on a microchip connected to a radio antenna, while the readers emit radio waves that "interrogate" the tags. The information is then digitally transferred to a computer.

Powered by an expanding number of applications in supply chain management, identification documents (such as passports), event tickets, and contactless payments, the influence of RFIDs on everyday life is growing rapidly. The technology has also become a hot employment area for both new and veteran engineers.

RFID supports career opportunities in multiple engineering areas. Since RFID is a radio-based technology, RF engineers are needed to help design the ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags, readers, and antennas that form the basis of RFID systems. RFID system manufacturers often hire software engineers for their knowledge of network design, protocols, security, and other related issues.

Application software developers, meanwhile, are needed to create new RFID-compatible, sever-based applications and to adapt existing software products to work with the technology. Specialists in supply chain management integration will be needed to work

collaboratively with RF and systems engineers to develop systems that will be able leverage the power of pervasive tracking, monitoring, reporting, and autonomous management.

With readers gathering data from potentially hundreds—or even thousands—of tags, there's a growing need for post-processing software to capture the reads, assess relevance, sort and process, and interface with back-end systems such as supply chain management and customer relationship management systems. Engineers and developers with experience in dealing with high-volume transactions systems and/or integration with critical business management systems are in high demand.

Skilled chip designers can find employment opportunities at chipmakers targeting the RFID market. These firms are always looking for ways to design and manufacture RFID tags that are small, very functional, and as inexpensive as possible. Power efficiency is also required in "active" tags, which need an energy source to communicate with nearby readers. Engineers that can help companies deal with this challenge will find themselves securely employed for the foreseeable future.

Building Skills

The first step toward getting a job in the RFID industry is to acquire the necessary design and development skills. Although hundreds of schools offer instruction in the various RFID-related disciplines, such as RF, IP technology, and wireless security, several institutes stand apart by virtue of operating their own RFID research labs. These facilities not only train future RFID engineers, but also provide businesses and other enterprises with innovative RFID technologies and processes.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison RFID Lab (www.uwrfidlab.org), for example, helps over 40 companies stay competitive through RFID technology. The lab, including students and faculty, participates in applied research, demonstration, and instruction of RFID technology and applications. The facility is also available to individual companies for sponsored company-specific projects.

The University of Pittsburgh's RFID research is world renowned, so it makes sense that the school's RFID Center of Excellence (www.engr.pitt.edu/SITE/rfid), and its research program, has been identified as one of the top three such facilities in the world, alongside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Cambridge in England. The University of Pittsburgh RFID Center of Excellence also serves as an international resource to academics and members of the business community.

Wal-Mart has been one of the retail industry's largest and most enthusiastic RFID supporters, so it's no surprise that the University of Arkansas (http://itri.uark.edu/rfid.asp), located in the retail giant's backyard, is a major force in RFID training and research. The school's Sam M. Walton College of Business sponsors an RFID research center that's widely recognized as a leader in retail process optimization. The center's base of operations is a lab that models a production warehouse and retail store environment in 10,000 sq. ft. of space.

The University of Kansas (www.rfidalliancelab.org) and its RFID Alliance Lab evaluates RFID technologies and publishes objective reports based on its test results. Daniel Deavours, a research assistant professor and the lab's principal investigator, along with other researchers, assesses how RFID equipment will perform when placed in a variety of realistic scenarios. The lab also draws upon expertise obtained by researchers evaluating Bluetooth systems to create rapid deployable radio networks and various other wireless and networking projects.

Villanova University (www.rfidlab.org) is a relatively small school compared to most of its state-operated counterparts, yet it still manages to run a world-class RFID research facility. The lab's primary goal is to become a leading provider of RFID research in the mid-Atlantic region and promote collaboration and partnership with RFID manufacturing industries. The lab provides capabilities for the development of new RFID technologies and prototype designs. It hosts testing facilities for RFID products and supports the evaluation of RFID tag and RFID-assisted tagged localization methods, collision avoidance techniques, and signal propagation characteristics.

Final Point

While classroom study, research at an RFID lab, and internships are all paths leading to an RFID career, personal initiative is also important. Businesses, government agencies, and other enterprises are still experimenting with RFID, so unlimited opportunities remain available to imaginative engineers who can think of new ways to use the technology to identify, track, and monitor objects, animals, people, and just about anything else.

So stop thinking about the Web for a few minutes and start pondering RFID's potential. With some insightful thought and planning you may be able to develop your own "disruptive" application. Even if your concept doesn't lead to instant riches, your creativity may help you launch an RFID industry career.

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer, and numerous other publications.

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