Magazine Article | August 21, 2008

RFID: Ready For Business

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Advancements in today’s radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies are opening up a world of new and more powerful applications for business users.

Integrated Solutions, Industry Leaders In RFID

Many businesses are disenchanted by the fact that the RFID industry has failed to live up to the over-hyped growth projections made a few short years ago. They shouldn't be. Hugely optimistic predictions such as those usually fail to materialize; instead steady, rather than exponential, adoption is typically the rule with emerging technologies. The latter is exactly the path RFID technologies are taking. In fact, technical advancements and adoption are occurring at a much faster rate in the RFID space than have occurred in other IT industries. By historical comparison, bar code technologies took more than 25 years to evolve to the point where they gained mass appeal. In fact, the past 12 months have produced RFID product enhancements that are pushing the space into uncharted and exciting territories. In this article, we'll take a look at some of these advancements and explore how they can impact your current or future RFID initiatives.

Many of the RFID enhancements made over the years have occurred at the tag and reader level. "For example, today's EPC (electronic product code) Gen 2 tags deliver performance that is 600% better than the Gen 1 tags of only three years ago in terms of range," says Scot Stelter, director of product marketing, readers, for Alien Technology. "While few business end users care about range, they do care about the read success rate that range is a surrogate measure for. The higher the range, the more RFID tags are read successfully. These success rates are at an all-time high today."

Industry vendors continue to focus on increasing the effectiveness and business value of RFID tags. For example, over the past year, tags with extended, user-accessible memory have begun to emerge. Standard RFID tags offer only a limited amount of memory (96 bits) — just enough to store an EPC number. RFID systems based on these tags use the same 'license plate' approach as the bar code-based systems widely deployed today. These standard RFID systems are limited by the fact that they must link to remote databases to obtain additional information about a specific tagged item. This requires a network infrastructure that guarantees secure, reliable, and fast access to the database where additional item data resides.

Extended memory RFID tags, by contrast, offer an additional 512 bits of memory to standard tags and add value to applications such as asset management, product life cycle tracking, yard management, and shipping container tracking. For instance, the on-tag memory enables decisions to be made at the point of use and requires no network connectivity — eliminating connection delays that can impede operational efficiency. This portable database approach can come in handy when mission-critical operations are dependent upon verifying some aspect of an asset's history (e.g. maintenance, repair, usage history, etc.).

In addition to extended memory tags, new technologies are also beginning to emerge that provide added context to the EPC data contained on the tag. "For example, new RFID readers are now available that can detect whether the tag being read is coming or going," says Mendy Ouzillou, senior product line director of RFID products for Impinj. "The ability to detect tag direction can dramatically increase the value of read data for applications across all verticals." For example, tag direction insight will allow retailers to determine if a tagged item is moving into or out of a store, or if it's being brought out onto the store floor or returned to the back room. In logistics, distribution centers can see if a pallet is arriving or leaving. Likewise, manufacturers can tell if parts moving through an RFID 'choke point' are leaving or being returned to inventory.

With products such as the ones described above now readily available, it's clear that the RFID industry has moved beyond the 'physics' of the technology and toward deployable solutions that can offer substantial ROI. Leading adopters of RFID technology realize this and think of RFID as more than simply a replacement for bar code solutions. These companies envision RFID's role as one that will increase process efficiencies in various applications throughout the enterprise.

"Pioneers in the RFID space see RFID as an enabler for new and improved solutions," says Chris Schaefer, director of RFID product marketing for Motorola. "These companies focus on the business problems and processes that need to be improved — not just the technology. Furthermore, they realize that RFID is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. They know there are many types of RFID technologies and realize that successful solutions can be architected only after a thorough analysis of business requirements and goals has been made." 

Knowing that nearly all RFID applications require a certain amount of customization, your path to becoming a leader in the space can be aided with the help of a good business partner as well as some end user education. "Working with a vendor or VAR partner that understands RF requirements and can assist in making informed decisions on the correct technology is essential to RFID deployment success," says Impinj's Ouzillou. "Your partner should help you anticipate future implementations and build a solution that can grow with your company and its evolving needs."

As for education, this is typically best when it comes in the form of end user training. "The first step to becoming an RFID leader is to become educated on RFID products or services through some of the training programs available in the space," says Alien's Stelter. "Hands-on training programs that provide you with exposure to RFID equipment, tags, and integration scenarios in a lab setting are often more valuable than bookish training programs with paper certifications."

The performance and ease of RFID technologies and products have improved dramatically since RFID burst into the public consciousness in 2003, and adoption of the technology is increasing. With some technical knowledge of the latest RFID product developments and the help of a trusted partner, you can develop an RFID solution that generates ROI for your business and helps propel the growth of this exciting industry. The key is to start with a well-defined project, realize the benefits, and seek other areas in your enterprise to leverage your initial success.