Magazine Article | November 19, 2008

How Is Today's RFID Being Used?

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Industry experts discuss trends in RFID (radio frequency identification) and some of the more unique applications of the technology.

Integrated Solutions, December 2008

A few years ago, people usually thought of RFID only in the supply chain sense — such as in a Wal Mart-type application. But today, RFID is being used in a variety of ways. RFID readers have become smaller, portable, and offer greater read rates. RFID tags are now able to be placed in liquids, on metals, and even integrated with temperature sensors. These advancements mean that RFID is able to be used in many ways we wouldn't have imagined a few years ago.

According to Uli Denk, asset tracking and marketing manager at Texas Instruments RFID Systems, "Companies should be aware of RFID's value and benefits for business processes beyond the supply chain. It's a good idea to research how similar businesses as yours are using RFID." On that note, I recently spoke with Denk and other RFID industry experts about the trends in RFID and some of today's more unique applications of the technology.

THE TREND TOWARD CLOSED-LOOP RFID
"The hype around open-loop, supply chain applications four or five years ago created an awareness of RFID," says Chris Schaefer, director of RFID product marketing at Motorola Enterprise Mobility. "This awareness, over time, has led companies to consider what RFID can do within their own four walls, with a closed-loop RFID application." According to Schaefer, IT asset management is one way in which companies are using closed-loop RFID. "Items such as company laptops and storage tapes are not only expensive, but can contain sensitive information the company needs to protect," says Schaefer. Rather than using spreadsheets or user logs to track this equipment, a company can deploy RFID to do so. Using RFID in this instance is a more secure way of tracing where equipment is and who has been using it, which can save money on lost equipment and keep sensitive data more secure.

According to Larry Harper, president of WinWare, inventory control is another area in which closed-loop RFID has really taken off. "Closed-loop RFID applications are our sole focus, and we've seen a lot of growth of these types of applications in the industry over the past couple of years," says Harper. RFID can be used to track tools and supplies within a manufacturing environment. Tracking these items with RFID helps to make sure employees are using the correct amount of materials and helps to automate your inventory replenishment process so you can be sure the correct tools are available when they are needed. RFID also can be used to track expendable items within a facility, so that as someone removes an item from a designated area, they are automatically charged for it.

Another example of how RFID is being used for inventory tracking is how HP is using it in its packaging facility to match parts to a work in progress. When a computer is ready to be shipped, RFID is used to make sure the correct accessories are packaged and even to ensure the correct language of warranty and the user booklet are included.

MOBILE READERS, TAG ADVANCEMENTS EXPAND RFID POSSIBILITIES
So, aside from growing awareness, what is propelling RFID to be used in new markets and applications? "RFID is being used more widely than ever due to the decrease in size of readers and tags," says Denk. "With smaller technology now available, RFID is able to be incorporated into devices where size was previously a prohibitive factor." Schaefer also points to the development of portable RFID readers as a reason RFID is being used in new markets. "Companies want an RFID solution that will fit into their current business processes, and portable readers do that," says Schaefer. "RFID will become increasingly mobile as technology allows readers to become smaller and smaller." For example, RFID is currently being used by RecycleBank to incentivize consumers to recycle. Portable readers are placed on garbage trucks and tags on recycling receptacles to authenticate the name and address of each household, weigh the amount of recycling picked up, and apply a credit in the form of rewards points (that can be redeemed for products and discounts in the consumer's community) based on weight. Portable readers also are often used on forklifts for warehouse inventory management. Another example is how the state of Texas is using handheld RFID readers for evacuation during hurricanes. When people have to evacuate their homes, RFID tags are placed on their wrists and belongings. The technology tracks evacuees and their belongings, and their families can receive updates on their location.

"The industry has seen RFID tags get smaller and smaller. Not to mention, tags that once weren't able to attach to metal now can, there are tags that can be washed, and tags that can withstand very high and low temperatures," says Harper. "These advancements allow for more expansive use of the technology." Not only can tags withstand extreme temperatures, some tags have integrated sensors to read temperatures. These sensor-enabled tags have proven very useful for tracking in the cold chain/food chain industry. The food product is tracked from the point of origin to the point of sale to monitor its environment. With the recent produce issues that have arisen, this technology can provide consumers with peace of mind about the safety of what they're eating. Further, the monitoring reduces shrink that may occur with produce being transported in too hot or too cold of a truck.

These examples are only the beginning of what's being done with RFID. Many companies are finding other ways to deploy the technology either within the four walls or in a mobile manner to streamline business processes. As technology continues to advance, adoption of RFID will continue to spread. According to ABI Research, the RFID industry will continue to grow 21% through 2012. 

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