I grew on a gentleman’s farm in the hills Tennessee. We had a party line until I was in high school, drank from a spring and we had a RFD mailbox address. It was a very simple and great way to grow up. I can not help but reminisce about life on the farm when I hear the term RFID. It reminds me of our old mailbox, sitting crooked in an older milk can with the hand lettered words RFD 122. That simple metal box was the connection to the world outside of Iron City, Tennessee. As Alphonse Karr said: "The more things change, the more they stay the same"
Radio Frequency Identification is basically made up of three parts (not counting the access points) tags, readers, software to correlate the tags. Breaking that down a little more, there are two types of tags; passive and active. Simply speaking, if the tag has a battery, it is active. Your wireless solution can really enhance a RFID solution just like a great road can enhance your driving experience. It works like this; the reader "lights up" the tag with a radio wave. The tag responds with data it has prestored in it, the reader forwards this to via radio waves to the wireless network, then to the RFID correlation software, that updates the database and your done.
We have been using RFID since 1995. The real change has been in the frequencies used. Retail stores have been using high frequency (13.56MHz) tags on things like clothes, stereo equipment, etc. Those are the devices that set off the alarms when you try to boost a limited edition Englebert Humperdink full sequence jacket from the store. *******... not that that ever happened to me...I just hear things... When RFID is positioned today, it takes on the incredibly overused term; not unified but convergence. As an engineer myself, we are always trying to converge something over to IP; phones, power, storage, video gaming and now RFID. The technical term for this is job security. All kidding aside, the real benefit of bringing RFID solutions into the IP network is much lower acquisition, maintenance and security cost. Plus we get to use a cool new term; Ultra High Frequency RFID tags and that gives us much more geek-cred to our peeps yo.
RFID tags are classed based upon a frequency or some folks call a read range. It looks a little like this:
- Low Freq Range: 50cm. Use: Good for tagging pets/people
- High Freq Range: 3m. Use: Access control for buildings, doors
- Ultra high Freq Range: 9m. Use: Pallets, Boxes for inventory control
- Microwave Range: >10m. Use: Vehicle tracking
Size of the tag and associated cost all increase with frequency.
If you read any of the literature about RFID from goober analyst, it would seem that RFID can do everything from inventory control to making sure your kids get to school on time. I have been involved in many RFID implementations (mainly at hospitals) and the question to ask yourself before moving towards an RFID discovery process is; "How can my business processes improve if I can track assets better" I am not a big fan of RFID being implemented exclusively for loss prevention, unless your losses are staggering. Loss prevention is a positive side effect of RFID, but normally not a primary business justifier.
I have seen RFID provide nearly instant value and payback in the follow types of deployments:
Distribution Centers. Sending and receiving can be automated by RFID tags by reducing the amount of folks needed to manually check-in incoming items as well as the time/energy spent proving items have (or have not) been delivered. RFID can also ensure that outgoing shipments are accurate, complete and loaded on the right truck. Then of course loss prevention benefit kicks in since RFID tracks the movement of assets within the Distribution Center.
Supply chain. A quick way to lose a customer is too not have an item in stock. The real problem is the not the distance of the distribution center to the store, but from the stores loading dock to the front end. Many items can be placed behind other boxes or inside bigger boxes resulting in an invisible inventory. RFID can give store operators the visibility to prevent an out of stock issue. Plus RFID can make sure the store is stocked to meet store sales/promos like day after Thanksgiving sales. Nothing makes me more angry then when my favorite stores are sold out of Billy the Talking Bass plaques.
Kid tracking. Medical facilities more then any other business have perfected and really honed the use of RFID. In many new born nurseries, the newborns are tagged with a RFID bracelet. By using RFID location based services to track the new born, hospital staff knows at all times where a child is. If the child is moved to an unauthorized zone, cameras will automatically train to the location and in many instances doors will lock to trap the child in that contained area. As a result, newborn thefts have dropped in some areas to zero and there is no worry that the wrong newborn is gave to the wrong mother since the mother and newborns RFID bracelet numbers match. Insert joke here....
Cool stuff right? Sky is the limit when it comes to RFID. Those examples are very basic installs. Keep in mind that anytime we have to deal with radio waves, implementation can be tricky. Radio waves have varying characteristics at different frequencies. Wireless technology is cheap as far as equipment cost go, it is the design/troubleshooting tools that cost the cash. For a successful RFID implementation, I would recommend the following steps as a guideline for your business.
- As the business lead, are you and your team clear on want RFID can and can not do?
- Do you have measurable fiscal gains that can be presented to the organization to show the success of RFID?
- Have you documented the business process RFID will change?
- Are you working with other vendors for an open RFID system or is this just an internal closed loop system used only in house? If it is open, document and agree on the RFID standard to be used.
- What frequency is best suited for your environment. One size does not fit all. 2.4 and 5.7GHz is not always the best answer. (although it is the majority of the time) For example 2.4GHz is highly absorbed by liquid, so if your business is stocking drums of fluid, that frequency may not be the best choice
- Which RFID technology offers the best benefit per cost ratio for the organization
- Will the RFID readers interrogate the tags all the way to the floor and behind other objects?
- What impact will adding RFID have to your current infrastructure?
I really enjoy working with RFID and design solutions that can take advantage of that infrastructure. Kinda like unleashing your inner George Orwell....
Jimmy Ray Purser