Radio Frequency Identification : What Is RFID

By: Gary Randall

Among the uses of radio frequency identification (RFID) are efficient inventory tracking in the supply chain, providing real-time in-transit visibility (ITV), and monitoring general enterprise assets. In addition, RFID is heralded as a technology that will replace the most widespread AIDC (automatic identification and data capture) technology: the barcode.

While RFID has proven to be a valuable tool in many industries and has several advantages over the barcode, implementing an RFID solution may not be appropriate for your business from the ROI (return on investment) perspective. Whether your investigation of RFID solutions is voluntary or involuntary, as in the cases of Wal-Mart and Department of Defense (DoD) mandates, there are ten key questions that you can ask yourself to help determine your RFID application's ROI:

1) What business problem am I trying to solve with RFID?

In general, RFID is most valuable in the following situations:

- When traceability through either a process or an item's life cycle is critical;

- When there are time or labor constraints associated with item identification, handling, and/or replenishment;

- When labor costs and/or data errors associated with item identification and handling are high;

- When business processes or software programs need more information about an item than a barcode can provide.

2) How can my business benefit by using RFID as opposed to barcoding?

Many of RFID's advantages relate to data readability. In order to scan a barcode, human intervention is required, whereas in most applications, data from an RFID tag can be read without the need for someone to properly align the tag with the equipment that reads the data. Furthermore, while barcodes must be visible on the outside of a product's packaging, RFID tags can be placed inside either the packaging or the product itself. Thus, unlike barcode labels, RFID tags do not require a "line of sight" to be read, and they have a longer read range -- up to 100 meters. Packaging contours, dirt, moisture, and abrasion can further impair the readability of barcodes. RFID tags are unaffected by such conditions. More data can be stored in an RFID tag than on a barcode, and RFID tags have both read/write capability, whereas barcodes are read-only and cannot be reused.

Other advantages of RFID relate to its potential cost savings. If, in your cost-benefit analysis, you can demonstrate how RFID technology will eliminate or reduce certain expenses (e.g., by improving staff efficiency), it can be easy to justify the investment. It's important to note that there's no one-size-fits-all RFID solution. Before an RFID system can be put into place, a thorough analysis of not only your business processes, but also the facilities in which you plan to install the RFID system, must be completed. Such an analysis will likely involve input from RFID vendors and consultants.

3) Should I use RFID, barcodes, or some combination of the two?

Despite the buzz and hype surrounding RFID, it will probably never replace the barcode, and in many cases, business processes can be optimized by utilizing both technologies. For example, it may be advantageous to employ RFID at the pallet level and barcodes at the item level.

4) With which standards does my RFID system need to comply?

EPCglobal is the leading organization in the development of industry-driven RFID standards. If you need to meet the DoD RFID compliance labeling mandate, your RFID tags will need to use the EPC Class 1 Gen 2 standard.

5) What, if any, international regulations must be considered?

If you're planning on employing RFID technology outside the U.S., you need to be aware of foreign regulatory processes and the allowable RF power levels for UHF around the world.

6) Are the data to be collected actionable?

When analyzing the costs and benefits of implementing an RFID system, you'll want to consider how you're going to transform the RFID data that you capture into actionable information that can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and facilitate growth.

7) Will my RFID system perform the same anywhere in the world?

While the physics of RFID are universal, the equipment and regulations are not. Many RFID vendors have developed their own proprietary equipment and software that is not compatible with technology developed by other vendors and manufacturers. In addition, different regions of the world have different regulations concerning the use of RFID.

8) Have I thoroughly tested the types of facilities in which the system(s) will be installed?

RFID systems must be customized according to the environment in which they'll be used and the physical properties of the items to be tagged.

9) Have I thoroughly tested the system's performance across a representative range of items?

Depending on what they're made of (metal, liquid, plastic, etc.), objects can exhibit a wide range of behavior characteristics in the presence of a radio frequency (RF). They can be RF reflecting, RF transparent, or RF absorbing. Most items will be some combination of the three. An object's properties become important when choosing which type of RFID tag to use. Aside from different tags, you will also need to test different RFID readers and antennas.

10) Have I assessed the impact of the RFID data on my existing information systems?

One strength of RFID is its ability to provide data in real-time, but many information systems are only equipped for batch processing. Therefore, rolling out an RFID system may require you to remodel your existing IT infrastructure.

Unless you've already mastered the fundamentals of RFID, you may not be able to answer some of the above questions. If you need assistance, take the next step and contact a few RFID solutions providers. Ask them what solutions they provide. In other words, do they offer services such as consulting, installation, training, and technical support, or are they merely resellers of RFID equipment?

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