Magazine Article | September 21, 2006

Mobile Readers Take RFID New Places

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

In large-scale, high-volume manufacturing and distribution environments, RFID’s (radio frequency identification’s) original paradigm has held sway: The readers stay put; the tags move. Until now.

Integrated Solutions, October 2006

A  new generation of mobile form factors is standing the traditional idea of fixed RFID readers in manufacturing/distribution on its head. Wireless, rugged, compact RFID readers are placed on vehicles and other portable equipment, vastly increasing the read range of RFID. The result is more granular data, illuminating increased accuracy, more intelligent asset management, better-informed decision making, and enhanced productivity.


Traditional systems based on fixed readers have been a great catalyst to the RFID revolution. Positioned at key entry and exit points like loading docks or dock doors, they have enabled us to collect important asset data in regard to shipping and receiving, but they offer no visibility into the in-between state of assets.

However, an RFID system featuring compact mobile readers can extend the RFID network beyond those fixed read points, enabling users to gather data in places and at times they never did before. In a warehouse, you’ll have redundant, end-to-end visibility; items’ locations are constantly updated as they’re received, shelved, picked, and distributed. In a factory, manufacturers can track components all the way through an assembly process until the finished product leaves the loading dock.

When a reader is on the move, every point can be a data collection point. For example, mobile RFID can:

  • Pinpoint an item’s location. Let’s say a carburetor is loaded onto a mobile RFID-enabled forklift. The forklift’s reader alerts the company’s tracking system that it has the carburetor, but that’s not all. Because tags are attached to the product and the storage location, the onboard reader also lets the system know where the item is at any moment.

  • Go with the flow. Traditional fixed readers don’t adapt well to changes in operational processes or physical layout, but mobile readers are extremely flexible. Their portable design enables them to move in step with your business. They deliver valuable data –– even when mounted on moving ladders or skate wheel conveyors.

  • Continuously update inventory data. With mobile readers, items aren’t only tracked when they’re on the move. Tagged items on shelves or in a yard can be scanned every time a reader-enabled forklift or cart passes near them, enhancing a company’s ability to keep inventory up to date and signaling changes that might represent theft or damage.

  • Enable new levels of efficiency. When an RFID-enabled forklift is connected wirelessly to a company’s data system, useful information flows both ways. Item picking can be directed wirelessly, with instructions sent directly to the forklift operator.



There are many challenges to setting up a mobile RFID solution. For example, handheld RFID readers mounted on forklifts or conveyors must meet requirements that low-range, low-power handheld devices don’t have to.

Power cords, data cables, or external antennas are ongoing requirements with traditional RFID installations. Mobile RFID solutions simplify, and in most cases, eliminate cable challenges altogether, shifting focus to battery management as the critical success factor. Also, mobile readers need to withstand rugged environments, whether that means working in extremely hot or cold areas, standing up to harsh weather, or handling the shock and vibration of vehicle-mounted applications.

New mobile readers should beat all these challenges. Rugged and wireless, they can go anywhere a forklift goes, stay out of the way, and transmit a continuous stream of valuable data back to the operator’s central data system. Integrated antennas are also key.  In some cases, the antenna power level is even controllable via software, so the unit can adapt to different distances or tag orientations. Certain environmental factors can affect the electrical characteristics of the unit. Ruggedness and durability of the mobile RFID reader are essential to preserving the unit’s electrical components, particularly in the presence of large metallic objects and other RF-reflective materials.

The new mobile readers have traded physical ties — wires — for a reliable, always-on wireless connection with a company’s IT network. Some of today’s new mobile readers are built to communicate with mobile computers that have the same rugged construction and wireless connectivity. Others use onboard Wi-Fi capability to keep in touch with data systems directly.

The difference between a mobile RFID system and a system with fixed read points can be significant. A system of fixed readers can tell you some things about the items being tracked, but a mobile system can tell you almost anything about those items. With the right mobile form factors in place, RFID can be configured to meet just about any business need.