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Radiofrequency identification, or RFID, is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects. There are several methods of identification, but the most common is to store a serial number that identifies a person or object, and perhaps other information, on a microchip that is attached to an antenna (the chip and the antenna together are called an RFID transponder or an RFID tag). The antenna enables the chip to transmit the identification information to a reader. The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag into digital information that can then be passed on to computers that can make use of it.

There are well-developed standards for low- and high-frequency RFID systems, and these technologies are widely used. For instance, LF tags are used to track livestock around the world. HF is used in
access control systems for buildings, ticketing applications, and automobile immobilizers. UHF is relatively new. The first UHF products didn’t reach the market until 2003, and the first ISO standard was not introduced for UHF until 2005. Another issue with UHF has been performance. Early tags were not always read reliably around water and metal, but the technology has improved greatly over the past few years. And finally, there have not been software solutions that take advantage of RFID data to solve business problems in specific industries. This is also starting to change, with more software solutions being introduced every year.

All technologies take time to reach a level of maturity at which standards exist, uses of the technology and its benefits are well understood, systems do what
users need them to do and early adopters prove the solutions work. Bar codes were invented in the 1950s. The first bar code was scanned in a store in 1974, and it took almost a decade more for the technology to be widely adopted. RFID technologies have been going through a normal evolutionary process and are clearly nearing the level of maturity at which they can be widely adopted. Standards exist for passive HF and UHF systems, and work is being done to establish industry practices for how to apply these standards. Major companies in a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, automotive, industrial manufacturing, health care, logistics and retail, have proved the technology can deliver major benefits.

Thousands of companies around the world use RFID today to improve internal efficiencies. Club Car, a maker of golf carts uses RFID to improve efficiency on its production line (subscribers, see Golf Car Maker Scores with RFID). Paramount Farms—one of the world’s largest suppliers of pistachios— uses RFID to manage its harvest more efficiently (see Farm Harvests RFID’s Benefits). NYK Logistics uses RFID to improve the throughput of containers at its busy Long Beach, Calif., distribution centre (see Logistics Gets Cheaper by the Yard). And many other companies are using RFID for a wide variety of applications. (See Case Studies for more examples of how RFID is benefiting companies today.)

RFID is used for everything from tracking cows and pets to triggering equipment down oil wells. It may sound trite, but the applications are limited only by people’s imagination. The most common applications are payment systems (Mobil Speedpass and toll collection systems, for instance), access control and asset tracking. Increasingly, retail, apparel, aerospace, defence, manufacturing, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies are looking to use RFID to track goods within their supply chains. Health care providers, energy producers and construction companies are using an active RFID system to track large equipment, tools and vehicles.

Some have questioned whether electromagnetic fields (EMF) generated by power lines, mobile phones, WLANs, RFID readers and other wireless devices may be harmful to human health. The World Health Organization’s research, as well as many other scientific studies, have shown that EMF exposure below the limits recommended in internationally adopted guidelines has not revealed any known negative health effects. To ensure a uniform benchmark for compliance, EPCglobal recommends adhering to the human exposure limits for EMF as developed by the International Consortium on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and recommended by the WHO.

The tags most companies are planning to use in the supply chain in the short term and in consumer packaging in the long term will contain only an Electronic Product Code. The EPC will be associated with data in online databases. Some information about the item might be accessible to anyone such as what the product is-but other information, such as where it was made and when-will be accessible only to those whom the manufacturer wants to make the information available. So Wal-Mart will not have access to data about products sold by Target and vice versa.

RFID could dramatically improve efficiency in the supply chain and reduce waste. If it can reduce the times products are not on the shelf when consumers want to buy they, it could also increase sales.

The distance from which a tag can be read is called its read range. Read range depends on a number of factors, including the frequency of the radio waves uses for tag-reader communication, the size of the tag antenna, the power output of the reader, and whether the tags have a battery to broadcast a signal or gather energy from a reader and merely reflect a weak signal back to the reader. Battery-powered tags typically have a read range of 300 feet (100 meters). These are the kinds of tags used in toll collection systems. High-frequency tags, which are often used in smart cards, have a read range of three feet or less. UHF tags-the kind used on pallets and cases of goods in the supply chain-have a read range of 20 to 30 feet under ideal conditions. If the tags are attached to products with water or metal, the read range can be significantly less. If the size of the UHF antenna is reduced, that will also dramatically reduce the read range. Increasing the power output could increase the range, but most governments restrict the output of readers so that they don’t interfere with other RF devices, such as cordless phones.

There are many consumer benefits. Greater efficiency in the supply chain will reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Companies will pass some of these savings on to consumers to try to gain market share from less efficient competitors. RFID could be used by retailers to expedite returns and by manufacturers to manage warrantee claims and improve after-sales support of items such as computers and DVD players. RFID could also reduce the counterfeiting of pharmaceutical drugs and insure the integrity of products purchased by consumers. And RFID could be used to secure the food supply and prevent terrorists from sneaking weapons of mass destruction into a country through shipping containers.

Yes. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been making RFID standards for more than 20 years. ISO 15693 and ISO 14443 are well-established HF standards. The EPCglobal Gen 2 standard has been adopted as a global standard (ISO 18000-6C), and ISO 18000-7 is an international standard for active tags operating at 433 MHz.

Microchips in RFID tags can be read-write, read-only or “write once, read many” (WORM). With read-write chips, you can add information to the tag or write over existing information when the tag is within range of a reader. Read-write tags usually have a serial number that can’t be written over. Additional blocks of data can be used to store additional information about the items the tag is attached to (these can usually be locked to prevent overwriting of data). Read-only microchips have information stored on them during the manufacturing process. The information on such chips can never be changed. WORM tags can have a serial number written to them once, and that information cannot be overwritten later.

Low- and high-frequency tags work better on products with water and metal. In fact, there are applications in which low-frequency RFID tags are embedded in metal auto parts to track them. Radio waves bounce off metal and are absorbed by water at ultra-high frequencies. That makes tracking metal products, or those with high water content, with passive UHF tags challenging. However, in recent years, companies have developed special UHF tags designed to overcome these challenges.

An RFID system consists of a reader (sometimes called an interrogator) and a transponder (or tag), which usually has a microchip with an antenna attached to it. There are different types of RFID systems, but usually the reader sends out electromagnetic waves with a signal the tag is designed to respond to. Passive tags have no power source. They draw power from the field created by the reader and use it to power the microchip’s circuits. The chip then modulates the waves that the tag sends back to the reader, which converts the new waves into digital data. Active tags have a power source and broadcast their signal. Real time location systems don’t respond to signals from the reader, but rather broadcast at set intervals. Readers pick up those signals and software is used to calculate the tag’s location.

No. Different countries have allotted different parts of the radio spectrum for RFID, so no single technology optimally satisfies all the requirements of existing and potential markets. The industry has worked diligently to standardize three main RF bands: low frequency (LF), 125 to 134 kHz; high frequency (HF), 13.56 MHz; and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF), 860 to 960 MHz. Most countries have assigned the 125 or 134 kHz areas of the spectrum for low-frequency systems, and 13.56 MHz is used around the world for high-frequency systems (with a few exceptions), but UHF systems have only been around since the mid-1990s, and countries have not agreed on a single area of the UHF spectrum for RFID. UHF bandwidth across the European Union ranges from 865 to 868 MHz, with interrogators able to transmit at maximum power (2 watts ERP) at the center of that bandwidth (865.6 to 867.6 MHz). RFID UHF bandwidth in North America ranges from 902 to 928 MHz, with readers able to transmit at maximum power (1 watt ERP) for most of that bandwidth. Australia has allotted the 920 to 926 MHz range for UHF RFID technology. And European transmission channels are restricted to a maximum of 200 kHz in bandwidth, versus 500 kHz in North America. China has approved bandwidth in the 840.25 to 844.75 MHz and 920.25 to 924.75 MHz ranges for UHF tags and interrogators used in that country. Until recently, Japan did not allow any UHF spectrum for RFID, but it is looking to open up the 960 MHz area. Many other devices use the UHF spectrum, so it will take years for all governments to agree on a single UHF band for RFID. 

The cost depends on the application, the size of the installation, the type of system and many other factors, so it is not possible to give a ballpark figure. In addition to tag and reader costs, companies might purchase middleware to filter RFID data. They will likely need to hire a systems integrator and upgrade enterprise applications, such as warehouse management systems. They might also need to upgrade networks within facilities. And they will need to pay for the installation of the readers. Not only do the readers need to be mounted, but they also need electrical power and to be connected to a corporate network. All of these factors are different for each deployment, depending on the application, the environment and so on.

Today, CPG and retail companies are using RFID to track promotional displays, reduce out-of-stocks and improve shipping and receiving accuracy.

Manufacturers are using RFID to track work-in-process, perfect just-in time manufacturing, improve shipping accuracy, and manage inventory and warrantee information.

Auto manufactures are among the leading users of RFID technology today. Most cars have an RFID reader in the steering column and a transponder in the key. If the ID in the key doesn’t match the number the reader is looking for, the car won’t stop. This system has greatly reduced auto theft. Auto companies also use RFID to track work-in-process, perfect just-in-time manufacturing, improve shipping accuracy, and manage inventory.

Hospitals and health-care providers are using RFID technology to track patients and high-value assets, as well as ensure patient safety. One company offers a system to track surgical sponges to ensure they are not inadvertently left behind in patients. And many hospitals are now tracking patients to ensure the right patient is given the proper care. These systems tend to reduce the data-entry workload of nurses, and also let them.

Pharmaceutical companies are exploring RFID’s potential in many areas, including improving supply-chain efficiencies, complying with government information-collection requirements, reducing counterfeiting, creating electronic pedigrees and ensuring public safety by making sure only legitimate drugs enter the supply chain.

Distribution and logistics companies are looking at RFID technologies for both internal operational improvements and external benefits. Companies are tracking assets, such as containers, axles and chassis, to improve asset utilization and schedule routine maintenance. Many are also looking to use RFID to provide information to their customers on the location of products in transit. Eventually, logistics providers envision linking passive RFID tags on cases and pallets with active RFID