Zebra Technologies: Playing the Radio Frequency ID Revolution

| About: Zebra Technologies (ZBRA)

by Andy Obermueller

You are taking part in a revolution.

If you pay to drive through a toll booth, or you travel abroad, or in some cases use your credit card, you're a willing participant. But this handful of actions is just a sliver of what's to come.

In fact, it's just a tiny fraction of what's already taken place. Everything from manufacturing, to retail, to energy production has felt the impact of this revolution. Despite the broad application this technology has already seen, however, there's no doubt we're still in the early innings.

And if you're an investor like me who is always looking for game-changing ideas, I think I've found one. It's RFID.

RFID is an acronym for radio frequency identification. The technology comes in the form of tags that emit a radio signal as they pass a scanner. This signal is pretty much the same as a bar code -- a long number that can provide a ton of information. But unlike bar codes, you don't have to scan each one individually with a laser; you can use a radio receiver, which makes it much easier to scan items that are densely packed or are moving quickly.

And while the technology has been in use behind-the-scenes, it is just now moving into our daily lives. RFID tags are used in your E-ZPass -- the device tollbooth scanners read as you drive by and "magically" charge you. Some credit cards have RFID tags, allowing users to simply wave their card across a reader, instead of handing a card to a cashier, swiping it through the scanner, and then signing a receipt. And all newly issued passports contain an RFID chip that is used to cross-check the information printed in the passport for improved security.

Hundreds of practical, profitable applications
But I don't classify a few million chips put into passports or toll tags as a game-changer. No, the real opportunity is with this technology's application for industry.

RFID is fascinating from an industrial standpoint. In short, the product helps improve efficiency. That might not sound like the sexiest goal on the planet, but there isn't a business manager in the world that wouldn't gladly spend cold hard cash if it means saving tons of money down the line. And that's exactly what's happening in all sorts of places. Take a look for yourself at how expansive the usage of RFID truly is...

Manufacturing: It used to take seven workers to transfer, unload, and manually enter the shipping / receiving data for parts and material shipments at a Boeing (NYSE: BA) plant in Washington. It took two hours a day per employee to read and record all the bar codes from each shipment. And there was no guarantee of accuracy.

Enter RFID. Boeing put RFID tags on these goods. The tags are automatically read by a scanner on the door frame, the data is sent to the warehouse management systems, which automatically generate a wire transfer to the supplier when goods are received. Now Boeing needs one worker, the system is perfectly accurate, and the savings in labor costs alone paid for the hardware investment in just six months.

Asset management: The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has tons of state-of-the-art equipment for its students and faculty. A lot of them, of course, are small, and the school needed a way to keep tabs on everything.

Bar codes were onerous to use and ultimately proved error-prone and ineffective. But installing RFID scanners and tagging the equipment could create a real-time picture of what devices were where. This application has hundreds of other uses, from law firm files to inventory control on car lots.

Loss prevention: Airline passenger volume is projected to hit four billion people by 2019, which will, at current levels of loss, generate nearly 70 million lost bags a year.

Fun fact: Each lost bag costs the airline about $130. That means in just the span of a few years lost baggage will be a $9.1 billion problem each year.

Fitting bags with RFID tags is a simple solution to a complex problem. The tags can be read at dozens of points throughout the underbelly of an airport as they move from point to point, ensuring that they are routed and loaded correctly. The more bags loaded quickly and correctly, the better an airline's on-time performance and customer satisfaction. That's dollars and cents -- billions of them -- that can be bought back and added to the carrier's bottom line with a relatively modest RFID investment.

Retailing: Beginning with jeans, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) is testing the technology, which can help a customer see if the jeans they want are in stock and literally where they are. The company could add this capability to thousands of products in its stores.

When it affects this many areas (and believe me, this is just a taste), it's not a question of if RFID will catch on, but which stocks are going to profit the most from the revolution.

There are a number of options in the space, and to be honest, I'm still researching the field to pin down my favorite. But if you want to start your own search, you might start with a company called Zebra Technologies (Nasdaq: ZBRA).

The shares have been on a tear recently -- they're up +49% since July. I'm keeping an eye on them and doing some further hunting elsewhere as well.

(To view Zebra Technologies recent Earnings Call click here.)

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Disclosure: Neither Andy Obermueller nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article