HomeConnectivityRFID: A fading technology finds new life in IIoT

RFID: A fading technology finds new life in IIoT

RFID, a technology brought down by hype

Radio-frequency information (RFID) was once the poster child of the industrial internet of things (IIoT), before new companies, technologies, use cases and networks turned the concept into an interoperability nightmare. RFID tags were often linked to the word every new technology dreams of: disruptive. But things haven’t gone as smoothly for RFID as some might have thought. Wal-Mart started a mini RFID revolution when it announced in 2003 that it would require its top 100 suppliers to tag pallets and cases of goods with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

source: Metal Craft Inc./Youtube
source: Metal Craft Inc./Youtube

Following Wal-Mart’s announcement, sales of “passive” ultra-high frequency tags rose from 2 million units in 2003 to 120 million in 2005, according to research firm ABI(CK). Revenue rose from $1 million to $20 million. But the rapid response was hurt by poor implementation, lack of appropriate infrastructure and underdeveloped use cases.

So companies suffered, and the talks of RFID replacing ordinary things like grocery store bar codes never become a reality.

“In retrospect, I think it’s easy to figure out: the cost of the tags and necessary support infrastructure (RFID readers, as a start) simply do not outweigh the benefits,” wrote Bill Schweber in a post on EETimes. “The bar code is more than enough for retail and many other situations, and costs absolutely zero to print on a label.”

RFID became a useful tool in retail, logistics, healthcare and a handful of other enterprise sectors, the technology largely lurked in the shadows while other advances like social media and streaming entertainment were truly disruptive.

IIoT to the rescue?

RFID has found new form in recent years thanks to the internet of things, particularly in enterprise sectors such as asset tracking.

“The Internet of Things just means using data from different devices, and integrating that data into existing or new business solutions,” Erick Brethenoux, IBM’s director of analytics, told Fierce Retail. “RFID is one of those inputs.”

Its popularity has been helped by the convergence of lower cost and increased capabilities of RFID tags. Currently, RFID is used in a wide range of applications, including supply chain management, retail, aircraft maintenance, anti-counterfeiting, baggage handling and healthcare. You will also find RFID chips embedded in credit cards, car keys and passports.

source: NTT SCL/Youtube
source: NTT SCL/Youtube

“Today, most RFID readers are capable of talking on only local area networks, not over the broader Internet,” said Phil Gerskovich, senior vice president for new growth platforms for Zebra Technologies to Network World. “That will require software changes by vendors to enable connectivity to IoT platforms.”

With the use of RFID, IoT enterprises can supervise their every product in real time, and manage their logistics architecture. They not only supervise the circulation in supply chain and share information, but also analyze the information generated from every procedure and forecast.  

Types of RFID and their uses

There are three main types of RFID tags, each with their own capabilities and use cases. The follow definitions are according to Impinj, an RFID solutions provider:

Active RFID Systems

In active RFID systems, tags have their own transmitter and power source. Usually, the power source is a battery. Active tags broadcast their own signal to transmit the information stored on their microchips.

Active RFID systems typically operate in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band and offer a range of up to 100 m. In general, active tags are used on large objects, such as rail cars, big reusable containers, and other assets that need to be tracked over long distances.

Passive RFID Systems

In passive RFID systems, the reader and reader antenna send a radio signal to the tag. The RFID tag then uses the transmitted signal to power on, and reflect energy back to the reader.

source: Labels Online
source: Labels Online

Passive RFID systems can operate in the low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF) or ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio bands. They are typically less than 10 m. Because passive tags do not require a power source or transmitter, and only require a tag chip and antenna, they are cheaper, smaller, and easier to manufacture than active tags. Passive tags may also be embedded in a variety of devices or packages to make the tag resistant to extreme temperatures or harsh chemicals.

Battery-Assisted Passive (BAP) Systems

A Battery-Assisted Passive RFID tag is a type of passive tag which incorporates a crucial active tag feature. While most passive RFID tags use the energy from the RFID reader’s signal to power on the tag’s chip and backscatter to the reader, BAP tags use an integrated power source (usually a battery) to power on the chip, so all of the captured energy from the reader can be used for backscatter.

Passive RFID solutions are useful for many applications, and are commonly deployed to track goods in the supply chain, to inventory assets in the retail industry, to authenticate products such as pharmaceuticals, and to embed RFID capability in a variety of devices. Passive RFID can even be used in warehouses and distribution centers, in spite of its shorter range, by setting up readers at choke points to monitor asset movement.

The competition

Like every other element in the IoT landscape, RFID is not without a healthy dose of competition. There is no need to emphasize Wi-Fi’s worldwide popularity, but its success in the internet of things can be attributed to its ease of use with no requirements to purchase additional hardware. NFC is another major competitor. It is a specialized subset within the family of RFID technology (High-Frequency (HF) RFID) with both it and RFID operating at the 13.56 MHz frequency. Other competitors include QR codes, ZigBee, Bluetooth and Z-Wave.

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