The irony is that, until recently, RFID and other non-bar code vendors complained that the Frontline International Supply Chain Week Conference and Expo (and its predecessors ScanTech and IDExpo) was “a bar code show.”

This year, bar codes were very much the “other” technology. Two major “bar code” companies, Symbol Technologies and Zebra, chose to have booths in the EPC (RFID) Pavilion instead of in the main show.

For Zebra, being on the RFID side made sense. Zebra showcased its new “Alchemy” printer/applicator that produces on-demand bar code or smart labels on the same piece of equipment. Zebra accomplishes this by having a roll of self-adhesive RFID inlays running parallel to self-adhesive bar code label stock. If a smart label is required, the tag is encoded, verified, then mated with the bar code label that is printed at the same time. If no RFID tag is required, just the bar code label is printed and applied. This was clearly intended for companies that will need to apply “smart labels” to some, but not all, pallets or shipments.

For Symbol Technologies, being in the EPC Pavilion was a bit of a surprise, as Symbol does not yet offer an RFID product. While some may try to use Symbol’s “abandonment” of the main show floor to trumpet “the death of bar code,” it’s actually not much more shocking than Symbol’s development of imaging technology in addition to laser scanning.

The message that can be taken from Symbol’s presence on the RFID side of the show (as well as the early involvement by Intermec and others in RFID) is that to remain a major player these days, companies will have to embrace all forms of data collection.

On the seminar side, the influence of existing and anticipated RFID and bar code mandates from both the government and private sectors was obvious. Seminar sessions on a wide range of topics, from Safe and Secure Trade Lanes to marking of pharmaceuticals, were very well-attended. And while many attendees clearly had a mandate to “learn about this RFID or EPC stuff,” interest in the full suite of data collection products and services was also evident.

Booths offering consulting, integrated ERP, WMS and other software products were busier than in previous years as people realize that collecting data is just the first step. Without proper systems beyond the bar code or RFID reader, it’s easy to envision huge piles of data just pouring out of open Ethernet ports and collecting on the floor.

One of the major issues companies will have to address with RFID is the massive amount of data that can be dumped into the system by “automatic” data collection. A number of companies have begun developing tools to turn this mountain of data into useable business events. Globe Ranger, for example, has introduced a “drag-and-drop” interface that allows users to easily design the data filtering system, add RFID readers and define events. It currently lacks the ability to add bar code readers — something that’s often overlooked in the rush to develop RFID implementation tools. That means many of these RFID data filtering systems and agents will have to be implemented separately from existing bar code data collection routines.

Despite all the attention being focused on RFID and EPC, bar code technology was still very much in evidence. However, aside from the usual collection of rugged- ized mobile computers, data collection terminals and associated hardware and accessories, only a smattering of other technologies was displayed. These included a new optical symbol and image capture system, voice-directed warehousing and pick-to-light systems.

Overall, if one were to use the Frontline Supply Chain Week show and seminar as a gauge to answer the question, “RFID: is this the year?” the answer would have to be a resounding, “Heck, yeah!”

Bert Moore, contributing editor

bmoore@idat.com