Magazine Article | May 24, 2006

Wi-Fi Meets RFID

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Need to track high-value assets? Try combining RFID (radio frequency identification) technology with your existing Wi-Fi infrastructure.

Integrated Solutions, June 2006

It’s a cliche to say that a rising tide raises all boats. But, that’s just what’s happening in the RFID industry right now. In mid-2003 Wal-Mart and the DoD both announced their UHF (ultra high frequency)-centered RFID initiatives aimed at cases and pallets in their respective supply chains. Magazines and trade shows continue to document these and other similar initiatives – Integrated Solutions included.

However, other applications of RFID technology benefited from this flurry of coverage. These apps also reaped the rewards of a more educated end user base, one that can differentiate between tag types, frequencies, and a host of solutions. There’s no question that RFID-based asset tracking applications are one of the beneficiaries. Whether it’s tracking shipments with active RFID tags or tracing reusable plastic containers (RPCs) with LF (low frequency) tags, asset-tracking applications are currently one of the hottest markets in RFID.

It’s understandable how the asset tracking market started to gain momentum. First, end users learned about RFID technology in all of its flavors. This led them to the business cases for the technology. In the supply chain space, making the case for UHF-tagged cases and pallets is a daunting task. It involves placing relatively expensive tags on commodity products. Asset tracking applications using RFID are much easier cases to make. Sure, the tags may be more expensive than their UHF counterparts, but the items being tracked have a high value. A $10 tag is a sound investment if it ensures that your $500 RPC won’t be lost, stolen, or misplaced.

The pervasiveness of Wi-Fi technology has converged with growing end user knowledge of RFID technology to extend the shadow of asset tracking even further. In this scenario, RFID-enabled tags are attached to high-value assets, and their location is tracked through a company’s current Wi-Fi infrastructure. Leveraging a company’s Wi-Fi network certainly has merits. First, it’s an established infrastructure that’s already in place. Second, most companies have a lot more in-house expertise around Wi-Fi than RFID. Finally, there’s no proprietary networking technology to install and support. Solutions providers, such as Ekahau, Pango, and AeroScout, are appearing at RFID-specific events and drawing crowds.

The most pressing scenario for Wi-Fi-based asset tracking seems to be in hospital applications. These large facilities struggle to keep track of expensive equipment as it moves throughout the hospital. In some cases, medical personnel stash equipment in storage rooms, ensuring later access to the equipment. This only exacerbates the problem. Other high-value assets in hospitals – namely, medical personnel – can also be tough to locate on short notice. Placing an unobtrusive RFID-based tag on the asset can solve all of these problems. For personnel, the tags simply affix to identification badges.

These asset tracking apps are hardly just for the closed-loop hospital environment. College campuses are using their Wi-Fi infrastructures to track PCs, laptops, lab equipment, and a host of other high-value assets. In manufacturing, pallets and RPCs are likely targets.

In all of these cases, asset tracking is handled by an RFID-Wi-Fi combo. It really marries the strengths of both technologies. That’s good news for end user companies that struggle to make the business case for RFID.