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RFID goes to college

Indiana University, University of California at Irvine add business courses in electronic-identification technology.

Not every MBA student gets to play with train sets and remote-control trucks in class.

At Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, though, some students do. The trains and trucks are part of the university's RFID lab, a working model of new technology that companies are using to keep better tabs on inventory.

The train carries items equipped with radio frequency identification devices, or RFID tags, that signal their location to special readers along the track, mimicking a conveyor belt in a factory or warehouse.

"It's actually kind of fun," said Ashok Soni, chairman of the Kelley School's operations and decision technologies department. "Plus, we can't have a conveyer belt in class; it's just not feasible."

The Kelley School is incorporating more lessons on RFID into both graduate and undergraduate classes in an effort to train students in advanced supply chain technologies. For instance, students in the logistics and distribution course spend three weeks on RFID, Soni said.

Although its lab is certainly unique, Indiana University is not the only school to introduce RFID business classes. The University of California at Irvine said on Tuesday that it's introducing in the winter quarter next year. The courses, offered through the school's extension program in Orange, Calif., include "Solving Business Problems with Radio Frequency Identification Devices" and "RFID Technology--Principles and Practices."

"Because the use of this technology is relatively new, few universities or education providers offer courses on the topic," Stefano Stefan, assistant director of business, management, legal and IT programs for UC Irvine Extension, said in a statement. "Our program is the first and only one of its kind in the country dedicated to the business benefits of this emerging technology."

As a next-generation bar code, RFID has become a hot topic in the business world recently. One of its biggest proponents is Wal-Mart Stores, which is using the technology in warehouses and stock rooms to save labor and detect missing inventory. One of the main benefits is that workers can instantly take stock of shipments at the loading dock instead of having to handle each item and scan bar codes by hand.

With other big names, including Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Target and the Pentagon, signing on to use it, the market for RFID gear is set to grow rapidly. Global RFID spending is expected to climb to $504 million this year, up 39 percent over last year, according to a new report from Gartner. By the end of the decade, companies will spend more than $3 billion annually on the stuff, the firm predicted.

So it's easy to see why Indiana University and UC Irvine have added RFID to their curricula. Plus, Indiana has help from some high-tech sponsors. P&G, a Midwest neighbor, awarded the business school a $150,000 grant to set up an RFID lab. Software maker SAP has also contributed software and cash.