(Sept. 28) LAS VEGAS — When Mark Roberti asked for a show of hands — Who thinks they know what this radio-frequency identification business is all about? — more hands than not stayed put.

Way more.

Maybe it was the fact that it was 9 a.m. This being Vegas, most attendees had probably gone to bed about four hours before.

Or, more likely, they kind of knew about RFID but were too afraid of being called on by Roberti, the editor of RFID Journal, for a quick and coherent answer.

That certainly would have jibed with Roberti’s message on his chosen subject.

“When you first hear about it, it sounds simple, but this is a very complicated technology,” Roberti said. “There are physics issues, data issues — all kinds of issues that all companies are going to have to deal with.”

Roberti’s was one of 11 educational programs on RFID at PackExpo 2005.

Roberti wasn’t the only RFID realist of the bunch of speakers lined up by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute. In his presentation, John Thorn, general manager of the RFID program at Checkpoint Systems Inc., Thorofare, N.J., described a number of kinks in the technology. One in particular could have big ramifications for the fresh produce industry.

When RFID tags get wet, Thorn said, they often don’t work as well.

Iceless, anyone?

Of course, if RFID spelled nothing but trouble, there wouldn’t be 11 PackExpo hours devoted to it, and both Roberti and Thorn were quick to point out how many companies had followed Wal-Mart’s lead and now required that their suppliers use it.

But if any audience members were expecting a quick and easy transition from the old way of identifying packages electronically to the new, Roberti and Thorn quickly disabused them of that notion.

Roberti cited a number of challenges facing RFID:

  • No machinery exists to effectively put tags on boxes automatically.

  • Tags can be damaged when boxes are erected.

  • Embedding tags in packaging can slow production.

  • Figuring out where to put an RFID tag on a box also is difficult, Thorn said. Put it on one side, and a reader reads it right 97% of the time. But move it just an inch, and that can drop to 57%, he said.