rfid technology

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. An RFID tag is an object that can be attached to or incorporated into a product, animal, or person for the purpose of identification using radio waves, typically from a range of 6 to 30 feet (2 to 10 meters).

RFID tags are envisioned as a replacement for barcodes, having a number of important advantages over this older technology. They offer opportunities for cost and waste reduction in supply chains. A number of major commodity purchasers, including Wal-Mart, Target, Tesco, Metro and even the US Department of Defense, are on board. They’re being embedded in all sorts of things, from toothpaste to razors to bottles of detergent, even passports.

An good example is with Airports many of which use bar coding schemes and some are exploring RFID which is fine for tracking checked baggage but a very bad assumption is made that once baggage is checked that it should not be monitored which is a dangerous assumption given how many people operate behind the scenes in the processes. A simple system of weight checking could help guarantee that luggage was not tampered with during its trip through the baggage handling process.

Right now if some worker with the TSA, airport security or baggage handlers were to be a security threat there is little to stop them from planting a device after the fact at many of the airports which have relaxed requirements for entry and exit of cleared and badged personnel. It is well know that members of both the TSA and airport security have been caught stealing and tampering with luggage, many were found to have criminal records and some were even illegal aliens. Luggage and items in the luggage also routinely disappear to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars from “checked” baggage. This is an area where RFID can help but it is really the combined use of RFID with other validation systems and manual spot checking that makes it work. So if you have the idea that somehow you are going to eliminate 100% of the direct human cost with a given tracking process by implementing RFID then you are going to be disappointed

Two things that are useful to understand about RFID:

1) the “RF” portion of the idea is useful sometimes, but not all the time. The ID part of the idea is useful sometimes, but not all the time. This means that you have to be very clear about why you are using RFID in the first place in order to make sure you couldn’t do the same thing with bar codes or an 802.11 enabled microcontroller

2) Try and actually define RFID sometime. Its really hard because some RFID tags have no ID, they just collect sensor data. While other RFID tags use 802.11 wifi standards which mean they’re functionally identical to a wifi connected laptop

The application of passive (non-active) RFID technologies can be of tremendous value for organizations attempting to control inventory, supply chain management, process control, etc. This yields quite an efficiency gain and cost savings which optimally so I am told is passed on to the consumer. =P Problem is that over time the economics will be ironed out and the cost and capabilities will drastically increase so we will see them applied to many more areas. Some of these may be more clear violations of individual freedoms and rights to privacy. Unscrupulous companies have no incentive to self police and will push all the boundaries until ineffective legislation is passed. The disincentive of industry “self regulation” is profitability from consistent privacy abuses. Governments don’t really have to worry because they have special rights and sometimes abuse the rights even their citizens ought to be able to have (ex. China’s great firewall). We as citizens should be more enlightened to the applications of science and technology and demand our politicians and legal authorities understand how we want them to regulate them. Free markets don’t always yield positive results for all economic actors and in the case of privacy we see who loses.

Truth be told, today we have very little effective privacy in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. We should be more worried about NOW and the application of TODAYS technologies. Anyone with a small understanding of how marketers aggregate data, insurance agencies understand and control costs, credit companies assess risk would understand that we have had 1984 for a long time now. RFID’s are only another technology in this set which represents a blessing or a curse. For this reason I have and will always be a privacy rights advocate and support organizations such as EFF and EPIC.

The manufacturing industry is also highly interested in RFID. I know it’s the case in the aerospace sector, with companies like Boeing interested in tagging parts to follow them through every manufacturing steps but also to follow them through their lifecycle, with maintenance records registered on the tags themselves. Boeing is already looking at the next step, where parts will be equipped with RFID tags capable of registering temperature or vibration extremes. Regularly during a flight, the tags would be scanned and any abnormalities would be reported to ground crews at the next airport. Upon landing, mechanics would already have a replacement in hand for the part that showed abnormal vibrations or temperatures !

The advantage of the manufacturing market is that once a company decides to go for RFID for internal purposes, it doesn’t have to support two technologies. The disadvantage is that manufacturing environments are usually full of RF interference.

In both cases (and many more actually), RFID will become the standard. RFID was actually invented some 20 years ago and at the time, proponents of the technology expected a real RFID revolution (like washers equipped with readers that could read tags embedded in clothing and automatically choose the appropriate washing cycle …). It never happened. Today, because so many major companies are initiating pilot projects and rolling out the technology in some applications, people see it as the signal for the revolution they expected 20 years ago. If it does happen, great, but I expect it’s going to be a rather slow evolution, inevitable, but slow nonetheless

There are some exciting RFID possibilities, such as cold-chain management, where products that have to be kept cold are tracked and monitored to prevent spoilage. But, overall, the good stories for the masses have yet to be written. And it’s hard to write them when an RFID tag might be 10-20+ times the cost of bar code, when you factor in conversion and new equipment costs. Bar Codes simply have a huge legacy advantage and it’s going to be very difficult to supplant bar codes anytime soon for most business.

Interestingly, retailing will probably be the place that the next great RFID story is made, but not in the fashion that you might think. I’ve read about a bookseller in the Netherlands who monitors his books via RFID . . . enabling him to improve his inventory turn as books are returned to their shelves faster and people find the books they are looking for more often. I think the tactical application in retail sales could be the next wave that could usher in mainstream use of RFID. But, I feel that the business, while it still will grow, will experience a shakeout as the value proposition of RFID isn’t readily apparent to most businesses.

Moroever, it may take about five years before we have wide-spread use of RFID in supply chain management and another five years before we see wide-spread use in other areas, like the wholesale and retail industry.

Limitations: RFID is a limited technology, especially when it comes to its use with materials like metals or liquids. The signals are partially absorbed and the generally good read rates drop.
Today’s RFID tags have relatively few security mechanisms to prevent unauthorised or accidental ‘writing’ of the tag. Encryption and secure information on the RFID tag requires processing power. This is not possible with low price tags at the moment. If you really want to be absolutely certain today, you have to use ‘write once, ready many’ RFID tags. The information on these so-called WORM tags cannot be overwritten.
Also, many lobby groups and consumer protection organisations have been actively campaigning against RFID for some time now. They’re afraid that personal data will be harvested on a massive scale with the aid of RFID chips.

ome generalisations:

Europe is well set up to read barcodes as products are manufactured, packaged, shipped and purchased at the store. The readings are gathered automatically and often linked in to the customers ERP system. The wrinkles with presenting the barcodes so that they are readable have long since been worked out. There are no real customer drivers for RFID like Wal-Mart. Most projects are around asset tracking.

The USA is way behind with implementing this infrastructure and the idea of being able to ready what is on a pallet as it goes through the dock door is attractive. Lots of companies still rely on mass printing labels then getting someone to “Slap” a label on a box before it “Ships” (Slap and Ship). They then tie up production records manually so lots of potential for errors. But other than Wal-Mart, no demand for RFID tagged products so much of the potential benefits could be achieved with more traditional means.

If an RFID tag costs 1 – 2 cents, tagging a commodity product greatly affects profitability.

There is a demand with Pharma to reduce the risk of counterfeit products and an E – Pedigree act is being brought in to play. The goal is to be able to quickly track where the product has been and have an unbroken chain from manufacture to user. But it is still possible to clone an RFID. There will be a lot of action around encoding the product to make it more difficult to clone and this could include human readable as well as barcodes and RFID.

Will RFID continue to grow? Yes, but its not close to crossing the chasm yet.


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